We live in uncertain times, with governments and systems collapsing such as in Venezuela, nationalistic sentiments on the rise, and despots threatening nuclear warfare.
Here in Hong Kong, however, we are lucky enough to remain largely unaffected by many of the issues other countries are facing. In fact, our problems seem to be mostly first-world issues. For example, suicides, especially student suicides, are highly correlated with earnings and wealth. Or take our housing crisis: the country is seemingly being inundated with money, which is driving house prices up and up.
And yet, can Hong Kong really call itself wealthy or developed if many citizens cannot even afford a roof above their heads? Currently, the poverty rate stands at around 19.7% - a whopping one-in-five who can’t afford housing or other basic necessities. You would think any government faced with such figures (one-in-five people unable to find an affordable home!) would jump into action.
Instead, the government seems happy to make a profit from selling off key plots of land to rich Chinese developers, pushing prices up even further and ignoring the needs of its citizens. In February of this year, for example, the government sold off land in Ap Lei Chau for an eye-watering - and record-breaking - fee of HK$16.86 billion ($22,118/sq. ft.), a price which was apparently 50% higher than the market rate. It was reported that the dealers hoped to sell off the land at another 50% mark-up, making it double the market value.
When the government does actually try to address the housing crisis, its efforts aren’t very effective. Take the newly-created Land Supply Task Force, yet another example of the government taking the same old ineffective measures, and ignoring what is truly hurting the city’s housing market. As its name suggests, it focuses only on supply and not demand-related problems. The Task Force also ensures that big business is represented while excluding any opposing voices, so that the scales will always be tilted in favour of releasing (likely by sale) more land into an already struggling property market. Without focusing on the demand-side by regulating the development and sale of property, the housing market will never be fixed.
So how can the Task Force truly address the city’s many problems? There are several policies they can put into place to, at the very least, ensure that the poor have a fair shot at home ownership and tenancy.
They could, for example, improve the already existing property market rather than building new properties. They could sell small flats exclusively to Hong Kong residents rather than wealthy foreigners and landlords, culling the profit-mongering practice of buyers who buy multiple homes, while providing a roof over the heads of the city’s impoverished.
They could also regulate the lending of money for the purchase of flats: for example, cap the loans for more expensive homes to reduce the chances of defaults, or bar multiple loans to prevent one buyer making multiple purchases. In the same vein, they could more strictly regulate the development and construction of housing, ensuring that flats smaller than 500 square foot aren’t built, as well as maintaining high standards of construction quality.
Lastly, cash-rich developers currently have too much power - many have financial subsidiaries geared towards providing loans at better rates than those of the government’s, who have smartly capped their mortgage loans. This is an exploitative practice that must be stopped.
It’s evident that a lack of will, rather than a lack of way, is what’s stopping the government from enacting some of these policies. The sooner they realise that this is the only way to protect the underprivileged and impoverished in today’s already unequal society, the better.