Jam Tomorrow

“The rule is jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today”. The White Queen’s explanation to Alice in 1871’s Through the Lookingglass of why gratification was always deferred, could well apply to Hong Kong’s housing situation. International surveys regularly show we have the most expensive real estate in the world, essentially because we have not built enough flats of the right standard. Relief is always just around the corner. In 1998 it was the “85,000 units per year” programme, in 2018 it was Lantau tomorrow, this year it is Northern Metropolis. Every few years we seem to have a new plan to boost the number of residential units to eliminate the shortfall, but the results are always 20 years into the future.

As with quantity, so also with quality: how big should the units be to provide a decent standard of housing. If that issue seems to have attracted much less interest in the past, the balance may be shifting. Development Secretary Michael Wong Wai-lun recently said the government was considering introducing a requirement that newly built private apartments should be at least 210 square feet in area. It is frankly outrageous that such a minimum needs to be written into law, but better late than never. That micro flats even smaller than this – barely big enough to park a car – are being built by developers and put on the market as places to live is an indictment of our society.

The standard defence of such a situation is that the real estate sector is simply responding to demand for affordable housing. But that is to stand logic on its head. The free market, upon which our community has relied for so long, is failing to deliver if the only apartments people can afford to buy are too small for the purpose. And it is absurd to continue reducing the size of flats so that they remain “affordable”. The system is clearly broken and the case for government intervention is overwhelming.

People forced to live in flats that are too small run the risk of psychological damage in the longer term with serious consequences for their mental health. Overcrowded chickens have been known to peck others, in extreme cases to death. Moreover, size of apartment can be a determining factor in willingness to have children. Hong Kong’s fertility rate is estimated at just under 1.4 per woman of child-bearing age whereas the natural replacement rate – the level needed to stabilize population size -- is 2.1. Crushing people together in small units for many means denying them the chance of a family, which is bound to lead to increasing frustration and resentment. On the other hand, those determined to be parents will go ahead but only at the expense of being further squashed.

One group of candidates for the upcoming legislative council elections – Path of Democracy and Third Way -- is pushing for a standard of 215 square feet per person. That would certainly be an improvement though it is pretty modest by regional standards. Space per person runs at about 300 square feet in Shenzhen, 270 in Singapore, 260 in Shanghai and 210 in Tokyo. Hong Kong is below 200. In 2021, the average living space of public rental housing tenants in Hong Kong was 13.5 square metres (about 145 square feet) per person. The Task Force on Land Supply looked at options for reaching 215 or 237. So we are last at the moment, and our ambition is to move up to equal last by 2030.

What do these numbers mean in terms of the size of units we should be aiming to build. Very few people will wish to live completely alone on a long term basis, so demand for nano flats up to 250 square feet should be very small. More typical would be a newly married couple wishing to live together after moving out from their respective parents’ homes, say 500 square feet. Our society is built around families, two parents with a child plus a further adult (family member or domestic helper to help care for the child while the parents are out working) and pretty soon you are looking at 700 square feet. By coincidence that is the same size as the footprint for a small house. If three storeys of that size are deemed appropriate for New Territories villagers, then surely the equivalent of one storey is not excessive for everyone else.

We know from experience that the private sector is not going to build a sufficient number of apartments of that size at prices which ordinary people can afford. So the government needs to do much more, and much more quickly. That means the public sector is going to have to build the units whether for rental or sale.

Whenever there is talk of accelerating supply of public housing, planning and land acquisition are quoted as major obstacles. But these matters are largely within government control. The chairman of the Town Planning Board is the permanent secretary for planning and lands, a senior civil servant. The powers to resume land for a public purpose rest with the executive council, chaired by the chief executive. What has been lacking is a willingness to exercise those powers, apparently for fear of antagonizing vested interests. Planning new towns to give Hongkongers a decent home is quite clearly a public purpose.

Our government needs to stop admiring itself in the mirror, step through the lookingglass, and deliver some jam today.