Hong Kong’s new pro-democracy winners in district council polls struggling to set up ward offices amid high rents, as some consider table at MTR exit or cargo containers

Natalie Wong

Camille Yam Ka-yi’s victory over one of the longest-serving veterans in Hong Kong’s recent district council elections may have been unexpected, but where she intends to set up shop for her new term is even more surprising – outside an MTR exit on Bonham Road in Mid-Levels.

“I will set up a table and a stool on the pavement to meet my constituents every day,” the nurse and part-time student at the University of Hong Kong said.

The 27-year-old has become a rising star in politics after defeating Stephen Chan Chit-kwai, a seasoned pro-establishment councillor who had handled district affairs for 28 years.

But Yam, who would officially assume duty on Wednesday, is only one of the many pro-democracy novices struggling to secure a ward office in their own constituencies following the camp’s landslide victory in November.

Pro-democracy activist Fergus Leung accuses the Housing Society of being inclined towards assigning office spaces to pro-government groups. Photo: Edmond So

Riding on anti-government sentiments fuelled by the months-long social unrest, the pro-democracy bloc seized nearly 90 per cent of the 452 seats in the polls, and took over 17 out of 18 district councils amid a record turnout.

After her win, Yam hunted for affordable street-level premises in the University constituency since her election victory, but could not find a suitable place with a monthly rent of under HK$40,000 (US$5,100).

“Voters do not just expect me to convey political demands from protesters to the district authorities, but also help them solve neighbourhood issues,” she said. “I desperately need a ward office to do my ground work.”

The government provides a standard allowance of HK$44,816 a month to each district councillor for expenses incurred in discharging duties, including assistants’ salary, as well as water and electricity bills.

Hong Kong’s prime office rents fall by most in a decade as protests chill market

“If I take up premises [beyond my budget], the remaining allowance of less than HK$5,000 is not enough to hire any assistants and cover operational expenses,” said Yam, whose constituency is in Central and Western district, known for sky-high office rents.

In the district, the Post learned at least four out of 15 councillors-elect failed to find an affordable ward office for their new term.

The government provides help to councillors-elect whose constituencies are in public housing estates, by giving them priority to use non-domestic premises as offices with rents below market rate.

But the policy only applies to estates managed by the Housing Authority, and not those under the Hong Kong Housing Society, which manages 20 rental sites in the city.

Among such areas is Kwun Lung Lau, a constituency also in Central and Western district, which was won over by pro-democracy activist Fergus Leung Fong-wai.

The 22-year-old HKU student leader had hoped to take over his pro-establishment opponent’s office in the estate as its monthly rent of about HK$5,000 was much lower than market rate.

But the newcomer is pessimistic as Yeung Hoi-wing, Leung’s defeated rival in the polls, said his party, the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, had indicated interest to continue to rent the premises after the tenancy expired in March.

“I don’t think I can beat the resourceful DAB by offering higher rental prices,” Leung said. He also accused the Housing Society of being inclined towards assigning office spaces to pro-government groups on past occasions.

In response, the society said all applications would be considered on a commercial basis, with due consideration to the proposed trade and whether it provided services for residents and met their needs.

District Councillor-elect Camille Yam intends to set up her office outside an MTR exit on Bonham Road in Mid-Levels. Photo: Dickson Lee

Unaffordable rents are also a bane for Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Tsang Tsz-ming of the Democratic Party, who explored various possibilities for ward offices, including placing a container-turned-office on idle government land.

He said several government departments remained unresponsive to his questions concerning proper procedures.

According to the Home Affairs Department, three district councillors in the previous term set up container offices, including Stanley Ho Ngai-kam of the pro-establishment Federation of Trade Unions, who served in Heng Fa Chuen constituency, which comprises private residential land use. He failed to secure another term in November.

Available office space in Central rises to 14-year high, rents fall 3.2 per cent

As the first district councillor who operated in a cargo container, Ho said it took two years to clear all government procedures before he could move in.

“It was already half of my four-year term. The environment was also tough as it could be very hot inside the container during summer,” he said. “But it’s better than working without an office.”

Sham Shui Po district councillor Ramon Yuen Hoi-man, also from the Democratic Party, shared the sentiment as he was among five out of 431 members who did not set up ward offices until the end of the previous term.

Under the Home Affairs Department policy, councillors who have not established a ward office can still claim set-up expenses of up to HK$120,000 to procure equipment and furniture for their work.

But Yuen said there were many limitations, as items such as surveillance camera systems, computer desks and refrigerators were not claimable, according to a government document provided to councillors.

In his constituency where large shopping malls sit, he could only afford a small premise in an industrial building as the correspondence address for council business in the previous term.

High rents continued to haunt him in the new term, despite his landslide victory of nearly 2,000 votes over Bruce Lu Ki-fung of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, another pro-establishment group.

“I do not want to spend another four years meeting residents in fast-food restaurants,” he said.

He called on the government to allow him to rent an idle room in a community hall in the area so he could meet his constituents there – an idea rejected by the Home Affairs Department, which said the move would deprive the public of the use of the facilities to run community activities.

The authorities also dismissed suggestions to introduce additional subsidies in high-rent districts. “It is hard to determine a standard amount as the rent in various districts depends on their location and quality,” a department spokesman said.

He added that respective district offices, under the department, together with other agencies concerned, would render suitable help to councillors having difficulties in setting up their ward offices.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Hong Kong’s new pro-democracy winners in district council polls struggling to set up ward offices amid high rents, as some consider table at MTR exit or cargo containers first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.