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Edward Yiu: The livability of the city has deteriorated

Prof. Edward Yiu, Associate Director of Institute of Future Cities (Photos by ISO staff)

You're an associate director of the Institute of Future Cities. What does this institute do?

The institute has five centres. I focus on research on land and housing policy. My colleagues work on sustainability, community planning, cultures of ethnic minorities, and art, which are some areas related to the development of future cities. Of course, global warming and air pollution are also relevant topics. Studies on cities are interdisciplinary in nature and require the cooperation of experts from different fields.

What made you focus your studies on Hong Kong's housing problems?

I'm a professional surveyor. I used to concern myself with the problem of building dilapidation, which inevitably involves the issue of property value. I found that even though some buildings were quite shoddily constructed, their value kept rising. House prices in most cities around the world are only slightly higher than their costs. The situation in Hong Kong is strange. Construction costs make up only one-third to one-fifth of house prices. What's the rest? Curiosity about this made me study Hong Kong's housing problems.

What are the problems of high property prices?

Property in Hong Kong has been ranked 'severely un-affordable' by international standards. This causes social problems. First, it has an impact on people's decisions to get married and have children. People don't get married or delay marriage, and they are reluctant to have children. This in turn affects our demographical growth. Second, people are forced to live in some very unbearable housing, such as caged homes, coffin rooms, sub-divided flats. Now even pigsties are sold for people to live in. The livability of the city has deteriorated significantly. Finally, housing unaffordability causes social unrest and xenophobia.

What are the causes of Hong Kong's sky-high property prices?

Hong Kong's unaffordable housing market has three causes, and our government is to blame for them. First, the government has pegged our currency to the US dollar. When the US lowers their interest rates and adopted a policy of monetary easing, our property market suffers from overheating as a result of a continuous inflow of 'hot money' into the city. Second, the government doesn't have the authority to screen and approve newcomers from mainland China to the city. In fact it is eager to bring in quality migrants and high-skilled workers. When our housing is unaffordable and in short supply, the increase in high-income people will only push house prices higher. Third, there is a long-standing shortage of land supply. The government even placed a moratorium on land sales. This is also a cause of our current woes.

Some scholars have advised that we should develop our country parks. What's your view on this?

We must keep two things in mind when discussing the issue of developing country parks. First, the population density of urban areas in Hong Kong is 25,000 people per km2, which is among the highest in the world. But the overall density of Hong Kong as a whole is 7,000 people per km2, which falls somewhere in the middle on a worldly scale. With such high density, Hong Kong is not considered a livable city, but it is not too bad. The colonial government chose a model of concentrated development for this city. Urban areas have been built to high density, while rural areas, country parks and the green belt have remained low density or uninhabited, so that citizens can enjoy the natural environment in the countryside. This is a trade-off. So, we can't say: Wow, 40% of our land is country parks. It's a lot. Let's take some out for development. If we do so, the overall density of Hong Kong will significantly increase and our living quality will plunge.

The second reason that we should leave our country parks alone is the fact that we have 4,000 hectares of unused government land and 800 hectares of brownfields. Brownfields are contaminated land used as container depots, scrapyards and storage areas. By adopting a brownfield-first policy, we can acquire enough land. And we can leave aside the issue of touching country parks for the next 20 or 30 years.

Is there any way to solve our housing problems once and for all?

The most optimal solution is a real democratic government. With real democracy, we can right the wrongs of the past colonial system of treating land as an asset of the government, instead of the people. And any decisions on land can be put under public scrutiny. But it seems that this solution won't be coming any time soon. A short- or medium-term solution is adopting Singapore's public housing programme. In Singapore, affordable housing is a right to which every citizen is entitled. In Hong Kong, public housing is a social welfare benefit that only people with low-enough income can enjoy. But in reality subsidized housing makes up more than half of the total housing units in Hong Kong. Many people with incomes or assets exceeding the limits still live in subsidized housing. Rather than letting people fight for public housing and home ownership scheme flats, why don't we hold an extensive public consultation? If the general public is in favour of the Singaporean model, then we should make it a consistent policy. Then people can focus their energy on developing their careers instead of fretting about housing.


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