It is high time that the government should get a good grasp of the city’s housing data and establish a comprehensive land database – an instrumental tool for formulating liveability improvement policies that can give citizens back the basic necessity of a humble home.
Policies on land and housing have been the top priority for the current-term Government, which has been actively helping citizens become home owners by implementing measures to increase housing supply from multiple directions. At the same time, “harsh measures” were rolled out to cool down real estate prices. Despite all these, Hong Kong’s housing prices have surged by about 50% since 2012. Not only is the price index for private residential properties approaching its historical high, newly completed flats are now dubbed satirically as “space capsules”, “diminutive luxury apartments”, and the like, further slashing the residential size of citizens.
Production of mini-sized flats rocketing
According to government data, the latest figure of 93,000 potential first-hand private residential units is the highest since 2004. The government has sold a total of 92 residential sites since 2013, which has outnumbered the 54 sold between 2006 and 2011. Although the successive government measures have indeed increased residential supply, the growth has failed to curb the rising trend of property prices. Instead, the so-called “mosquito units” are created and the average living space per person has continued to shrink. The situation is very worrying.
In recent years, tiny flats are taking up a much bigger share in Hong Kong’s supply of newly built residential buildings. In 2009, there were only 5.2% of mini units in all completed buildings. Yet, the first three quarters of 2016 alone saw the completion of approximately 2,500 tiny flats, or 23% of all newly built ones, illustrating residences are increasingly smaller.
Living space inferior to a prison cell
n his 2013 Policy Address and during his Tianjin visit in March of the same year, the Chief Executive mentioned that the government needed to make better living environments for Hong Kong people through long-term macroscopic planning. Three years passed but the situation has seen no improvement. Rather, signs of worsening are emerging. To lower the threshold of home-owning to attract more buyers, developers are pushing “micro-units” under 200 sq ft to the market. This practice also helped them raise the average per sq ft price and added to their profits. Of late, certain projects are offering tiny units that only measure 128 sq ft each – a size that is even smaller than a standard parking space. A study conducted earlier by The Chinese University of Hong Kong reveals that the average living space per person for tenants of “sub-divided units” stands at 47.8 sq ft, which is even smaller than a standard prison cell, which is 49.5 sq ft Compared to other developed locations and countries, Hong Kong people are living in shockingly small spaces – the situation is poles apart from the Chief Executive’s vision.
Statistics show that the saleable areas of private residential units have only grown by 6% on average over the past 32 years. Hong Kong people are each living on 179 sq ft on average, which is smaller than the per person living space of major Asian cities such as Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore and Tokyo. Of these cities, Taipei is housing its citizens with more than twice the per person floor area of Hong Kong. Although Singapore is a small place like Hong Kong, the living environment of Singaporeans is much more comfortable than Hong Kongers. According to the annual report of the Housing & Development Board of Singapore, each HDB flat resident could be living on as much as 298 sq ft. At present, many countries outside of Hong Kong have set up a minimum standard for average living space per person, which is supported by various penalties and incentives. For example, at the beginning of last month, the British government proposed to introduce a national minimum size (70 sq ft) for bedrooms. Landlords breaching the standard are subject to criminal liabilities.
Building a land database
Currently, a 75 sq ft minimum average living space per person is only in force for public housing. Since a relevant requirement does not exist for private residence, new developments are offering smaller and smaller units in the past few years. The crux of the issue is a lack of “minimum average living space per person” in Hong Kong. Besides, the government has not faced up to the overcrowding reality of its citizens. As a result, there is yet to be a concrete policy to date. In the Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030 report published by the Development Bureau, while a goal to transform Hong Kong into a liveable city was set, there is no mention of a minimum average living space per person.
Now that the government does not even have the overall average living space per capita data, how can it talk about formulating a standard about it, so that Hong Kong people have a better living environment? In light of the inadequacy, I propose that the government should take reference from other countries and formulate a standard for minimum living space. The government should get a good grasp of the city’s housing data as quickly as possible to establish a comprehensive land database and formulate corresponding policies based on statistical data to improve the city’s liveability and repay citizens with the most basic living environment that they deserve.
Massive land creation should be supported
After all, the predicament with no land to build new housing faced by Hong Kong today has stemmed from the lack of massive land development projects over the last decade. Amidst the colossal demand for residential units, and the fact that land creation takes time, the government has no choice but to employ land supply models that may not be so ideal and sustainable – such as short term measures like “change of land use” – an unusual move taken during unusual times. In the long run, the government should support large scale land development projects, for example, building new development zones in the New Territories, implementing appropriate land reclamation, exploring the feasibility of utilizing country park land, etc. In addition to satisfying the need for development, a land reserve must be kept in place so that land supply can be adjusted according to market changes, and the halt in land creation that happened some 10 years ago can be prevented.
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