The great land debate in Hong Kong has generated an avalanche of comment, with people from all walks of life expressing different views in formal forums, the media and ad hoc public meetings.
Such a strong sense of participation in public policy discussion is rare in a city where people are more preoccupied with making money than, well, almost everything else. But housing is apparently different because owning a home, an essential part of the Hong Kong dream, has become a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford.
The problem, as the government has repeatedly said, lies in the shortage of land. In the hilly terrain of Hong Kong, creating land for housing development is both technically and financially challenging and extremely time-consuming.
The government has proposed numerous ideas to overcome the difficulty. Some ideas are seen to conflict with numerous vested interests while others are certain to raise objections from environmentalists and social activist groups. The government is trying use the debate to build a public consensus on land usage.
But one thing is certain. Even with the public support it needs, it will still take many years, or decades with some projects, to increase the supply of housing in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, public patience is running out.
Earlier this year, the government made several proposals to bring quick relief to the pressing housing shortage problem. These proposals are aimed at helping improve the unacceptable living conditions of the many families living in subdivided apartments that pose serious health and safety hazards, especially to elderly and child inhabitants.
Proposals include installing pre-fabricated apartments in the shape and size of a full-sized shipping container in temporary locations and converting old apartments into subdivided apartments that meet the city’s strict health and safety standards for families that are most in need.
The government has demonstrated models of “container” apartments which, from the look of them, are eminently livable with air-conditioners installed to ward off the intense summer heat in Hong Kong. They can be built quickly and relatively cheaply. A great advantage is that they are relatively easy to relocate from one site to another, according to need.
From the look of it, these units can provide a much healthier and more pleasant living environment than the many subdivided apartments found mostly in squalid buildings which lack modern amenities. What’s more, those old buildings were designed to house much fewer people than they do now. The old design with inadequate emergency exits poses a grave fire hazard to inhabitants.
The hardship of subdivided apartment tenants, especially the children, has been captured on camera and televised in numerous public affairs programs. Such images contrast sharply with the status of Hong Kong as one of the more prosperous developed economies in the world, with per capita GDP ranking among the highest in the region.
It is proven to be an impossible task to provide public housing to the neediest families. They must wait, like everyone else, for more than four years for their allotments.
The government is trying hard to shorten the waiting time for public housing to a more acceptable three years. But that target seems hard to meet in the foreseeable future.
For that reason, the most practical and sensible approach is to deploy greater resources and efforts on proposed stop-gap measures to help produce quick results needed to build public confidence. To be sure, public housing cannot be solved by container apartments or cooperating with NGOs in old apartment conversions. But a quick fix is better than no fix.
Controversies surrounding some government land use proposals can be said to stem from insufficient public confidence in the government’s capability to resolve the problem, although its resolve to do so is not in doubt. What the public wants to see is some progress no matter how temporary it may be.
When people see the improvement in living conditions after moving into “container” homes or quality subdivided apartments, they have stories to tell that will cast the government in a good light, helping silence the many perennial critics and cynics.
The author is a current affairs commentator.