For Hong Kong leader, home building alone may not resolve crisis

Unaffordable housing may be fuelling violent protests, but critics say Lam’s measures could make property even pricier.

Hong Kong protester before Carrie Lam address
Anti-government protesters like this man greeted Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday before legislators forced her to abandon her address to the territory's legislature [October 16: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Hong Kong – The huge yellow protest banner near Hong Kong‘s legislature set the tone for two days of heckling that forced the Chinese territory’s leader to twice delay her appearances before policymakers.

“Citizens mask their faces, Carrie Lam masks her heart,” the banner read, an allusion to the now-outlawed face masks that Hong Kong protesters have been using during months of increasingly violent anti-government demonstrations.

On Wednesday, after being forced to abandon her annual policy address at the Legislative Council because of constant interruptions by opposition, pro-democracy politicians, Lam – the chief executive of Hong Kong –  later outlined via video more than 200 policy initiatives to boost Hong Kong’s flagging economy.

Among them were measures to encourage large property developers to build more flats to make housing more affordable in a city that has some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

The scarcity of public housing, which has long been a key quality-of-life concern in Hong Kong, has become bound up with the current political crisis that began in June with protestors demonstrating against a proposed law that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to mainland China

But analysts and community organisers who work with some of Hong Kong’s poorest people say Lam’s measures may not be enough to reverse the recession into which Hong Kong’s economy has slipped, and will do little to ease the housing crisis.

In fact, some critics say the proposals could end up hurting the very people they’re meant to help, and actually benefit the large corporations that dominate land ownership in Hong Kong and that exert enormous political influence on the territory’s governance.

“Housing is the toughest livelihood issue facing Hong Kong society. It is also a source of public grievances,” Lam said in her speech on Wednesday, adding that housing was “fundamental to social harmony and stability”.

“I learned that young professionals, with monthly salaries in the tens of thousands, are frustrated by the fact that they are unable to buy flats from the private housing market when market prices are often over 10,000 Hong Kong dollars [$1,275] per square foot [0.09sq metres],” Lam added.

Lam promised that 10,000 transitional housing units will be built over the next three years for people waiting for public housing. The government will also offer rent subsidies for those waiting for public rental flats and make it easier for first-time buyers to raise mortgages.

Hong Kong housing
Hong Kong is one of the most densely packed places in the world [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

She said the issue of land supply has to be addressed and the government will take back private land for public housing. The government has already identified three kinds of sites: 450 hectares of abandoned farmland, lands with stalled public housing projects and seven hectares from three urban squatters’ villagers. 

Hong Kong is one of the most densely packed places in the world.

‘Political standstill’

But Lam could face a tough time pushing her proposals through given the depth of opposition she faces in the legislature.

Tommy Wu, a senior economist at Oxford Economics, says Lam will not be able to make many “concrete economic policies given the political standstill”.

Lam’s approval ratings have been at record lows for months, and on Thursday she was heckled again by opposition legislators at a Legislative Council session, forcing her to once again delay making her statements.

Hong Kong Legislative Council protest
Pro-democracy politicians interrupted Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam for a second day on Thursday in the Legislative Council [October 17: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

“Spending more money at the current juncture probably won’t help the economy much given the poor sentiment and ongoing protests,” Wu told Al Jazeera.

Lam also confirmed on Wednesday what many economists have been predicting: That the territory’s economy shrank in the June-to-September quarter, extending the 0.4 percent contraction in the preceding quarter, technically leaving Hong Kong in a recession. Official third-quarter economic figures are due to be released on October 31.

Signs of the economic slowdown are all around Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s retail sector has declined more than during the downturn caused by the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003, according to real estate adviser Savills. 

Shop rents are down 54 percent from 2013. Warehouse rents have fallen for the first time since 2016.

Official figures showed that retail sales fell by 23 percent in August compared with the same month last year.

Some 100 restaurants have shut down, affecting around 2,000 staff, according to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po.

‘Too little, too late’

Some observers say that even if Lam’s proposals are implemented, they are unlikely to help Hong Kong’s poorest.

“Too little, too late. It was not addressing the real issues,” Johnson Yeung, a protestor and a member of the executive committee of Amnesty International’s Hong Kong division, told Al Jazeera.

Yeung says that some of the measures proposed are counterproductive. 

“She had already promised to increase housing supply when she was elected,” he said. “That’s a long time away and will not help with the immediate situation.”

Yeung also believes that the government should take back land only from big property developers, instead of from the poor in squatters’ villages. Lam’s proposal would see both developers and squatters losing land.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam faces intense opposition to her plans to boost Hong Kong’s economy [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

In fact, the shares of property developers like New World Development, Henderson Land Development and CK Asset Holdings Limited surged on Thursday as investors bet that Lam’s moves would actually raise property prices, making it even harder for many ordinary people to buy homes.

Ng Wai-Tung, a community organiser at the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), a nongovernmental organisation, agrees that Lam’s land acquisitions and rent subsidies will do little to curb prices.

“Landlords are still free to raise rents. If rents increase, people cannot afford them, so it doesn’t solve the problem,” Ng, who has worked with the city’s homeless for more than two decades, told Al Jazeera.

Others also believe that raising the limits of how much people can borrow will also be counterproductive.

“This will actually raise housing prices. If people are allowed to borrow more, then landlords will see reason to bring prices up,” Yeung said. “[Lam]’s not helping the general public if she does not dare to confront the big land developers.”

“Without a concrete response to the [protestors’] five demands, using housing to calm down the situation is wishful thinking.”

Source: Al Jazeera