There is little doubt that today’s most topical and controversial local issue is Hong Kong’s housing shortage. At present hundreds of thousands of city residents live in subdivided flats and the waiting time for public housing is several years long. Recent trends also reveal that young couples are delaying marriage simply because they cannot afford to live together or raise a family. With Hong Kong being the most expensive housing market in the world, most young aspiring homeowners look at the price of micro-flats and realize their dream of buying an apartment is likely to remain just that — a dream.
Against this backdrop, our Task Force on Land Supply has proposed 18 options from the short to long term in hopes of jumpstarting real solutions. All these options come with significant challenges, which is why the task force has proposed eight conceptual options. Some of these are so far removed from perceived reality that they approach the absurd. For example, one conceptual option is to build 300,000 apartments in a reclaimed part of Plover Cove Reservoir in the remote northeast New Territories, far from adequate infrastructure or public transport. Another proposal is to build housing on top of the container terminal at Kwai Tsing on elevated platforms which would let container transfers continue underneath. That such proposals have even reached the conceptual stage reflects the desperate housing situation we currently face. Clearly, the time to think outside the box has arrived.
It is curious then that the task force failed to directly mention one large chunk of flat land that millions commute past daily. It is also easily serviceable and close to transport networks. I speak of the Happy Valley Racecourse.
Returning to our housing plight and the extreme conceptual options the task force is floating as solutions, it is perplexing that such a huge space in the center of Hong Kong, now occupied by a racecourse, is not even part of the discussion
This 18-hectare site offers huge immediate potential for housing development when compared with any of the other options proposed by the task force. Because of its convenient location and physical layout — there is no need to push rubble into the sea for landfill or drain a reservoir — thousands of flats could be built there within just a few years.
And while it is true that the Hong Kong Jockey Club extends huge charitable benefits to the city via the proceeds from gamblers, this needn’t end if the Happy Valley Racecourse were handed over for housing. After all, the club’s other racecourse in Sha Tin, which holds weekend races, would easily be able to accommodate one extra night of racing a week to replace the once-a-week evening meetings at Happy Valley. Already, most of the thoroughbreds are housed in Sha Tin so there wouldn’t even be a need to move the horses, as happens now for Wednesday races. The Sha Tin grandstand also has a much larger capacity than that of Happy Valley, so again, using the suburban facility makes more sense. Another less obvious benefit arising from a shift to Sha Tin would be shorter tunnel queues and traffic jams around Causeway Bay on Wednesday evenings.
Now just imagine the goodwill the Jockey Club could create by handing over their Happy Valley site for housing. Unlike the many other charitable projects from the club that presently benefit niche communities, offering up all of Happy Valley would be viewed as a historic donation to all of Hong Kong. The gesture would also have the potential to go some distance toward changing the image of local elites who are viewed as having little regard for the disadvantaged in our city. A century or two from now, historians would use terms like “visionary” and “magnanimous” to describe such a generous gift to the whole community.
Returning to our housing plight and the extreme conceptual options the task force is floating as solutions, it is perplexing that such a huge space in the center of Hong Kong, now occupied by a racecourse, is not even part of the discussion. If draining a reservoir in a remote corner of Hong Kong, or building on top of a container terminal, are both considered reasonable propositions to solve our housing crisis, surely closing down a racecourse situated in the middle of the city, which is largely used for only a few hours once a week, should compare favorably to most of the other extreme options.
The ultimate irony here is that the racecourse resides in Happy Valley, a decidedly unhappy place for millions of punters, mostly from the grassroots side of town, who are likely to leave with less money than when they arrived. By donating their Happy Valley site to the public for housing, the Jockey Club has a great opportunity to turn the present space into a much more joyful place.
The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.