[SCMP Column] Stretching the Limits

November 05, 2016

They called them “homes for heroes” – the millions of council-built homes thrown up in the UK at the end of the second world war by the trail-blazing socialist government that was swept to victory tasked to rebuild a war-shattered country.

My parents walked in over the still-drying cement, with three-year-old me undoubtedly sitting on my recently-demobbed father’s shoulders, thrilled at their good fortune. For the next four decades, this was my family’s home. My parents never owned it until Mrs Thatcher threw most of the country’s ageing council house stock onto the market at deep discounts in the 1980s. But we did not need to own it. It was home. Just 1000 square feet, with three tiny bedrooms, my three sisters shared one bedroom and I and my brother shared another. Walls were thin. It was always noisy. But it was home, brimming with memories good and bad, where a family could live like a family, and neighbours could gossip as they always do.

When I went to university at 19, I found myself couped in newly-thrown-up student residences – room enough for a bed and a desk and a wash basin, but with a shared bathroom and kitchen down the corridor. It was cramped, but as a newly minted student, possessions were few. That student room was 160 sq ft.

I blink unbelieving that Hong Kong property developers today have the temerity to build and offer “mosquito homes” of the same size. I am appalled that they have the temerity to ask up to HK$4m for them. I am perplexed that so many Hong Kong families are so desperate for a place to call their own that they are willing to pay such prices. I am gravely disappointed in a government that allows this to happen.

Worst of all, I am sure of one thing: these “bite-sized units” will never, and can never, be a home. They reflect an already grim reality for most Hong Kong families – that such tiny living spaces can never truly be a home – certainly not a home in the sense that I remember as a little boy growing up in England. At best, such living spaces are an asset that can hopefully in due course be traded up to provide some savings for old age. Even that is not assured. Just as I find it hard to imagine how Hong Kong’s poor get by on HK$5,000 a month, so I find it hard to imagine what sociological scars are inflicted on couples forced to raise families – and look after ageing parents as well as “house” a Philippine or Indonesian helper – in such circumstances. As one of the world’s richer cities, this should be a matter of deep shame to our government, and the governments that preceded it – not least because the governments in so many other cities across the region have served their citizens so much more conscientiously.

Put on one side the US where the average home is 2,300 sq ft. In Singapore government regulations require developers to provide housing units averaging 700 sq ft. There is controversy over “bite-sized units” of 810 sq ft.

In Shanghai, the average apartment size is 710 sq ft – close to the national average, and almost twice the Hong Kong average. In Shenzhen, today one of the world’s hottest property markets, the government stepped in two months ago to nullify the sale of some 60 sq ft flats, referencing Beijing regulations that residential units cannot be less than 230 sq ft.

But where are equivalent Hong Kong regulations limiting such monstrous abuse by developers? Bear in mind that a typical car parking space is 160 sq ft, and shipping containers are 200 sq ft (containers are being fitted out and used as temporary student housing in Holland). If they exist, it seems major property groups are taking scant notice.

It must be to Hong Kong’s permanent shame to be ranked as having the least affordable housing in the world, with home prices on average 17 times a family’s annual income (in second-placed Vancouver, the average property costs 10.6 year’s household income).

And it must be to our government’s permanent shame that it shrugs its shoulders and suggests nothing can be done about it, acting as if this is a matter of irresistible market forces – which of course it is not. This week’s record Kai Tak land auction, which netted the government HK$8.84bn in fees, was a powerful reminder of the government’s own avaricious role in ramping up house prices.

Among the developers plunging into this micro-apartment market are Henderson Land, Cheung Kong and even Swire Properties – shame on them all, suggesting that this is a “sacrifice” that Hong Kong families need to make because of the fevered state of market forces in the housing market. A combination of less avaricious government land auction fees, and restraints on property developer ability to exploit supply shortages to insulate shareholder returns, would reduce massively the local cost of housing, and eliminate the need for such shameful apologies for “family homes”.

Our government’s role is not to condone such a disgrace. It is to say firmly that it is socially unacceptable for developers to construct such claustrophobic cells and pass them off as plausible homes. The government has the power to set regulations that define minimum standards for citizens of “Asia’s world city”. The government has the power to reduce its addiction to land auction fees. It has the power to release more land for sale. And it has the power to punish developers that strategically horde land in order to maintain a tight supply.

This is not just a matter of equity and justice. In the wake of the Occupy movement and youth protests in recent elections, the government must recognize that this dreadful property trend sits at the heart of a sharp decline in civic morale and community cohesion. At the heart of a stable and harmonious community are families and homes. These property trends destroy both, and put us all in political peril.
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