Tiny Tim

When I first saw the news that a local developer had put on sale flats of just 123 square feet, I suffered a powerful cocktail of emotions. The first and strongest one was a deep sense of shame. What kind of society have we created, I asked myself, where a major corporation could in all seriousness tell our young professionals that the residential apartment they deserved to own was smaller than a reasonably sized parking space. How much longer will it be – could it be indeed that we have already crossed the threshold – before a farm animal in Europe qualifies under cruelty to animals legislation for a living space greater than a Hong Kong citizen?

Next came anger. What kind of government could reign over such a system and not explode into decisive political and administrative action. Whatever happened to the public housing programme and all those fine home ownership ideals? Finally came concern. How long would it be before the victims of such a system became so furious with the outcome that they rose up one night and overthrew it? Hong Kong people are famously gentle of temperament on most political and social issues, but even the mildest citizen will reach breaking point if pushed too far. And 123 is several hundred square feet too far.

The trend has been visible for some time, of course. Over the years the size of residential dwellings offered for sale in the private sector has drifted down from the 1500 square foot mark to a 1000 – 1200 range, then 7 – 800, then 5 – 600. In recent years the pace of decline has quickened and we seemed to go from 350 – 400 to below 200 in the blinking of an eye. Flats that used to go on the market for the aspiring lower middle class are now being proffered as luxury premises. Indeed at $25,000 per square foot and up even in relatively remote parts of the New Territories, who could argue with that description.

I wonder if anyone in the SAR government has yet made the link between youthful disaffection, and the surge in the development of these micro flats.

In a recent global survey our city featured near the bottom in the happiness index. Survey after survey confirms the impression that our young people are not happy. The number of those considering emigration is up; social workers are worried about the rising number with suicidal thoughts; a stubborn minority abuses alcohol or designer drugs; a few are even dabbling with the silly idea of independence, even though in their hearts most know it is a nonsense. Anything to escape the bleak future being sketched out for them by the powers that be.

Columnists are often criticised for being long on complaints and short on constructive suggestions. Well here are two ideas that can be turned into policy and implemented quickly, in time for the chief executive’s policy address next month.

First, we should follow the example set recently by New Zealand and introduce a complete ban on non-permanent residents buying residential property. I know the arguments against such a policy -- Hong Kong is a free market, there are ways round it to make enforcement difficult or intrusive etc – all valid, but I’m sorry this is an emergency.

Secondly, we should set a minimum size for all new residential properties. There will be all the usual arguments against interference in the free market, and then failure to agree on what the number should be. Fortunately here we have a guideline that has stood the test of time: indigenous villagers are entitled under the small house policy to build on land they own in a recognised village a three-story house with a footprint of 700 square feet. Well if our yeoman farmers are entitled to 700 square feet (times three in a rural setting), let that also be the benchmark our beleaguered urban residents can look forward to in a high rise setting.

In the short term it can be argued such a stipulation will actually slow down solutions to the housing crisis because we would get fewer apartments for any given area of residential development. But I think such arguments overlook a deeper problem. We will soon be asking the legislative council and our whole community to spend billions of dollars on increasing the supply of land. There are only really two solutions here that matter: resuming and developing large areas of agricultural land and brownfield sites in the New Territories, and undertaking additional reclamation (though whether it is better to focus on adding to existing reclaimed lands, or going for a green field East Lantau metropolis is still open to argument). Both will be expensive and take time.

The task force on finding land for housing will soon announce the results of its public consultation exercise. Assuming it steers clear of populist solutions that don’t really make a difference in the overall scheme of things (and that is a bold assumption in the present climate) then the government will soon be facing some tough choices. The work of the task force was recently discussed on an RTHK radio talk show.

How can we support any option to spend so much money, one caller asked. The developers will buy up all the land at auction, build luxury apartments for outsiders then set prices so high the most we locals can afford is a shoe box. It is hard to say he is wrong. On the contrary, I can think of 123 reasons why he might be right.

And the argument that we should not interfere in the market has been overtaken by events: what we have is a case of market failure and the government has a duty to step in.