A profitable, affordable alternative to light housing and Lantau Tomorrow

Light public housing proposal is just the latest wasteful, expensive idea from the government in its efforts to fix the city’s housing shortage. Rather than waste money on more consultations and impractical, expensive solutions, Hong Kong should embrace a collective initiative to solve the issue.

Housing was the only policy issue Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu chose for priority action in his first 100 days. Yet, more than 200 days later, no rational long-term housing proposal has been presented.

A mere 5 per cent of the roughly 240,000 households on the government’s waiting list were allocated public housing in the third quarter of 2022, according to the Housing Authority’s latest figures. The average waiting time for a public rental flat is almost six years.

This brings us to the government’s latest proposal to ease the city’s chronic housing shortage – the creation of 30,000 light public housing units. The price tag for this short-term solution to a political and societal ailment is a staggering HK$26.4 billion (US$3.3 billion). The units’ lifespan is just five years before they are demolished to make way for permanent residential developments.

The light public housing proposal is just the latest wasteful, expensive idea from the government as it tries to address the shortage of affordable housing and offer decent accommodation to families forced to live in subdivided flats or other unacceptable forms of housing.

Of all the wasteful schemes, the Lantau Tomorrow Vision – now known as the Kau Yi Chau artificial islands development project – tops the list. The estimated cost of creating 1,700 hectares of land for development on three artificial islands is now projected to be HK$580 billion, 16 per cent more than when first proposed in 2019.

Some critics have said this could soar to HK$800 billion, and there is no timetable for completion of the project’s 210,000 flats. It is a gargantuan project that makes no sense when you consider there is plenty of land available for affordable public and private housing.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said a day before Lee’s policy address that “at least 3,280 hectares” of existing land had been identified for development. That is almost double the proposed acreage of Lantau Tomorrow with minimal infrastructure and transport costs.

The most critical issue now is not where to find the land but how to pay for developing housing that is affordable to renters and buyers. Hong Kong had an estimated HK$774 billion in reserves as of September, so it is not short of cash. One option is to take the HK$580 billion of equity and debt that was planned for Lantau Tomorrow and use it to build affordable housing on land that is already available.

It is long past time for Lee to initiate – with the support of President Xi Jinping – a bold, innovative housing solution for Hong Kong – one that embodies the central government’s “common prosperity” plan.

Governor Murray MacLehose’s public housing policies transformed Hong Kong in the 1970s by rehousing millions of people from squatter huts to public housing, making the city what it is today. With a new innovative housing policy, Lee can transform Hong Kong into the city of the future.

One idea for the government and private sector to consider is what I call the “housing subsidy solution”, a subsidised housing scheme. It would involve a partnership between the private sector and government, managed by bankers and real estate executives rather than bureaucrats. In short, this solution could make housing affordable to homeowners and renters while also giving the developer-landlord a reasonable return on investment.

For this proposal, we should work on the basis that nobody ought to pay more than a quarter of their income for either a mortgage or rent. At the same time, the developer, landlord and seller should be able to make a reasonable return on their investment. So a subsidy fund would make up the difference between the actual cost and what the renter or buyer would pay.

This would involve five sets of stakeholders. First, the Legislative Council and the government’s housing agencies could determine what grants and tax benefits they can offer for subsidised housing and what they can secure from Greater Bay Area governments and the central government for Hong Kong landlords and developers.

Top executives from six major developers have been appointed as members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, in exchange for their contribution to the stable development of the regional property market.

Second, developer and landlord charities would redirect a portion of their charitable contributions to the subsidy fund. This would include expanding the New World Build for Good concept, which is building 300 subsidised flats in Yuen Long and selling them at cost.

Third, public or private foundations, philanthropic organisations and individuals who are interested could also contribute.

Fourth, financial institutions, their charities and underwriters of public housing and infrastructure bonds can allocate a few basis points of every loan. They could also offer reverse mortgages to new buyers.

Finally, houses of worship and their charities that enjoy tax-exempt status could allocate up to 50 per cent of the donations they receive to the fund.

It is past time to build affordable housing for buyers and renters, housing that is also profitable for landlords and developers. Lee, Legco and government officials need to stop wasting money on more consultations and impractical, expensive solutions. Hong Kong can start building affordable housing profitably today through a collective initiative that could become a global model.