The housing minister has conceded that substantially reducing the time residents must wait for a public flat could take up to 20 years, a stunning admission that angered lawmakers who demanded the government do better to meet one of the most pressing challenges facing Hong Kong.
The legislators grilled Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan in the Legislative Council on Wednesday over the progress being made in cutting down the wait for public flats from nearly six years, which is twice as long as the Housing Authority’s pledge of delivering a home within three years.
Chan, who also chairs the authority, stressed the government still regarded that goal as a priority and pointed to about 350 hectares (865 acres) of recently identified land as more than enough to meet the official projected demand for public housing over the next decade.
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“The estimated public housing demand is 301,000 units for the period,” he told the meeting of the housing panel. “Assuming that there will be no new applications to the waiting list, we can achieve the objective to meet the full demand in 10 years.
“But there will be new families queuing in the coming years, [and] I believe it will take about 10 to 20 years to achieve the [pledge].”
Lawmakers pressed the minister on why the government could not give a clearer deadline for meeting its own promise of three years.
“Why can’t you tell the people that, by the year 2030 or so you can meet the pledge?’ said Starry Lee Wai-king, the leader of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). “People will think that you are not determined enough.”
The DAB earlier demanded the government come up with ways to boost housing supply and fulfil the goal within a decade.
Lee brought up the issue at another meeting, saying: “All we ask you to do is to maximise the plot ratios on sites in northern New Territories. Then basically you can achieve the three-year promise.”
She was referring to increasing building density in the Northern Metropolis, a massive urban cluster planned along the border with mainland China that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor unveiled in her policy address earlier this month and which envisions supplying as many as 926,000 flats, including 390,000 existing homes, for about 2.5 million people.
“Why can’t you simply tell the public, in 10 years, the waiting time could be cut short to three years?”
Hong Kong is the world’s least affordable residential property market, and Beijing has repeatedly called the city’s housing shortage a deep-seated problem that must be addressed.
By the end of June, about 153,600 Hong Kong families were waiting on average 5.8 years to be allocated a flat – the longest in 22 years – and many must live in cramped spaces such as subdivided flats while they wait. About 90,000 of the applicants have been waiting for more than three years.
To tackle the problem, Lam has set aside HK$11.6 billion (US$1.49 billion) to build 20,000 transitional homes, and launched a three-year cash subsidy scheme for them to apply.
Lawmakers on Wednesday also passed a bill regulating rent rises at subdivided flats, capping the increase to no more than 10 per cent for a two-year lease period.
Lam has herself recently criticised the Housing Authority for delays in the construction of new housing estates, but members have blamed other government departments for delays in handing over spade-ready sites for their use.
Authority member Lau Chun-kong said some of his colleagues had suggested at one meetings that the three-year service pledge be changed, but officials rejected the idea.
If the supply of land already identified could be sped up in the next decade, it would be possible to honour the three-year pledge in a decade, rather than two, he said.
Most of the sites the government had located for building the 301,000 units would only become available in the second half of the next decade, he noted.
“But right now we don’t know the breakdown,” Lau said. “Officials had better draw a clear programme to ensure timely delivery.”
Chan Wai-hung, a member of the group Hong Kong Subdivided Flat Concerning Platform, said tenants he knew were disappointed with Chan’s remarks.
“It only shows officials lack sincerity to solve the problem.”
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