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Housing, Hong Kong’s most complex issue, needs an integrated strategy, says FCC panel of LegCo and SoCO members

With Hong Kong’s housing issues consistently making headlines — cage homes, sky-high rent, and long wait times for public housing — the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) assembled a Club Lunch panel to attempt to answer a longstanding question: Is Hong Kong’s housing problem solvable?

The panel, held on August 28, consisted of Legislative Council (LegCo) members Doreen Kong, Andrew Lam, and Dominic Lee, as well as Sze Lai Shan, Deputy Director of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO). Moderating the panel discussion was FCC First Vice President Jennifer Jett.

When asked about the biggest housing issue that Hong Kong faces, the panel didn’t give a single answer. Instead, they agreed that the variety of problems in the city are all intertwined with one another and must be addressed in a multi-faceted way.  

“I’ve got the feeling that the Hong Kong government does not know how to deal with this complex issue,” said Kong, who has focused a core part of her LegCo career on making more housing affordable for residents.

Doreen Kong and Andrew Lam. Photo: FCC

A part of the complex issue that Kong refers to is the city’s public housing system. Scoring factors such as age, income, family size, and residence/citizenship are what the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HKHA) uses to determine who is eligible for public housing.

While the panel agreed that this system isn’t perfect and that there are cases of people abusing public resources, an overhaul of the HKHA’s scoring system still might not be helpful.

“Even if you adjust the [public housing] scoring system, it’s not actually going to help because you’re only moving the distribution from one demographic to another demographic,” said Lee.

Dominic Lee. Photo: FCC

Lee also said that while addressing multiple housing issues at once is a good strategy, there still must be some kind of prioritisation of these issues when considering economic feasibility, especially those that involve land reclamation.

Lam, former Executive Director of the Urban Renewal Authority, noted that acquiring land may take longer than planned, but that it is worth the wait.

“I’m all for [land] reclamation. That’s the only place where the government can take full charge,” he said.

Lee disagreed, saying, “Lantau Tomorrow is a ‘vision’… a 20-year project. Most of us are not going to be around in 20 years … they consider that area the third [Central Business District] of Hong Kong. But to be honest, are you going to put your HSBC headquarters in that area? Probably not.”

Lantau Tomorrow Vision is a government project that aims to create artificial islands in the waters near eastern Lantau Island, reclaiming about 1,700 hectares of land, and is expected to cost an estimated HK$624 billion (US$80 billion).

Also concerned with land supply, Sze explained how less land leads to less public housing and the over 220,000 people now living in cage homes – the primary focus of her SoCO work.

She noted that over her career, the number of illegal cage homes has increased and that the overall quality of cage homes hasn’t improved, but that the media’s focus on them overshadows a newer — and perhaps more problematic — type of housing issue: subdivided flats.

“Visually, the cage homes are more sensational … journalists always take photos,” Sze said. “Subdivided [flats] are not so sensational, but they’re still a serious housing problem.”

Sze Lai Shan. Photo: FCC

She listed some of the issues with subdivided flats (despite having better living conditions than cage homes), including increased plumbing and structural issues that can harm entire buildings.

Sze views both the cage homes and subdivided flats as issues that can be solved as long as the government takes an active role in addressing these residents’ needs.

“It depends on ourselves whether we want to help those people that are so poor. They are underprivileged,” she said.

Lee also agreed with Sze’s analysis of the cage homes and subdivided flats, and added that cage homes are a result of poverty, income inequality, and the overall housing shortage, all of which should be included in the city’s efforts to reduce the number of cage homes.

“If we’re facing as a city a huge housing shortage, then no matter how much public housing we have, we’re still going to have these cage homes,” Lee said.

Despite the various issues discussed throughout the panel, as well as the obstacles faced when trying to solve Hong Kong’s housing issues, the panellists agreed that their plans are within their reach.

“I’m optimistic about how it’s heading towards. We have a lot of work to do, but as long as we keep our hopes up, I think we will do just fine,” said Lee.

For Kong, her belief in change lies in the government’s commitment to listening to all members of society and developing clear plans to solve their problems.

“If we really want to solve the housing problems — all sorts of housing problems in Hong Kong — we need to have a very clear, very defined and integrated strategy to deal with all kinds of housing issues and also different needs of different segments of Hong Kong people,” she said.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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