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Hong Kong's new road map draws mixed views
Publication Date : 27-09-2013
Hong Kong's sky-high property prices and infamous warren of "coffin homes" hopefully will become a thing of the past if a government-appointed commission's road map goes as planned.
It proposes to solve the city's intractable housing crisis by building 470,000 new homes over the next decade. The state will take a more active role, with public flats making up 60 per cent of all housing, up from 50 per cent now.
But the plan - the result of a 10-month-long deliberation by the Long-Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee - has received mixed reactions since it was announced three weeks ago.
Some hail it as a step in the right direction, but others find it inadequate for meeting demand. A key challenge lies in finding the land for the new flats.
Still others criticise the proposal for not tackling key issues exacerbating the problem, such as cheap loans and the state's land pricing and population policies.
They say ramping up supply without factoring in these issues could lead to over-building, even as nature lovers worry the city's nature reserves will be threatened.
"We need to control population growth, and not let so many mainland migrants in," Fish Yu of the lobby group Green Sense said at a forum held this week to discuss the proposal. Some 760,000 mainland Chinese have settled here since 1997, under a Beijing-controlled quota system to facilitate family reunions.
At the forum, Housing Secretary Dr Anthony Cheung acknowledged the complexity of the issues, saying: "Inevitably, we have to make some choices."
Not all the feedback has been negative. Some people applauded the government's more interventionist approach. "Why not increase public flats to 70 per cent?" one resident suggested.
Cheung pledged that the government would learn from the past, noting that in 2003, it over-reacted to plummeting property prices by abandoning its policy to build 85,000 flats a year.
"If we had not done that, we would be able to respond more quickly to needs now. Government policies should not lag behind market demand," he added.
The proposal follows a similar move by Singapore to invest in infrastructure ahead of demand.
This year has seen major changes in housing policy in both cities as they try to help their people cope with soaring housing prices. Last year alone, prices here shot up 26 per cent.
A key problem in Hong Kong is the lack of available land. Just 6.9 per cent of its land - or 76 sq km - can be put to residential use for its 7.2 million people.
Singapore, in contrast, has about 100 sq km for 5.4 million people.
Two-thirds of the land in Hong Kong consists of "green field" land, which includes country parks. Such areas are dear to Hong Kongers - Development Secretary Paul Chan's recent suggestion regarding the possibility of building flats on country park land triggered an uproar.
Making a case for using more green land, housing committee member M.Y. Wan told The Straits Times: "It makes you cry to see fellow citizens suffer in sub-divided homes. Only when everyone is free from such conditions, then should we focus on environmental considerations."
Critics say the city's 11 golf courses and disused factories should be developed instead.
Housing academic Edward Yiu, looking "out-of-the-box", says the government could ask Beijing for land in Guangdong. It could be administered by Hong Kong in an arrangement similar to that governing Hengqin Island, now under Macau's control.
Some do not think under-supply is the problem at all, noting that there are already 200,000 more housing units than households in Hong Kong. Rather, they say, ultra-low interest rates resulting from the United States' quantitative easing policy have fuelled speculation, which has in turn pushed up property prices.
Others point to how the government prices the land it sells - at market value. Some say it has a strong motive to keep prices high since land-related sales form a fifth of government revenues.
Executive council convenor Lam Woon Kwong argues that open tenders are still the best way. Otherwise, the government could be open to accusations of granting benefits in private.