The unavailability and unaffordability of decent housing, and the vast wealth gap that exists between owners and non-owners of property, underpin some of the great unresolved social and economic problems in Hong Kong.
In his presentation as part of Lingnan University’s 2021 Cities and Governance Webinar Series, Charles Ho, Project Director of Social Housing in The Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), described some recent projects which aimed to find new ways to provide homes to those in greatest need. The aim of these projects is not only to supply accommodation but also to give residents effective social support.
Housing poverty in Hong Kong
The shortage of available land, coupled with ineffectual policy decisions, has made construction of public housing fail to keep pace with demand. Some of the worst effects of this shortfall were highlighted in research conducted by HKCSS.
“We found that low-income families cannot afford to rent a whole (privately let) flat,” Mr Ho explained. This has resulted in an increasing number of such disadvantaged families moving into sub-divided flats. “As you know, those flats are small and lacking in terms of security, and (adequate) lighting and ventilation. They are also unhygienic and smelly.”
Even so the tenants are charged rents which can amount to 40 or 50 per cent of their family incomes, he noted. While children living in these flats have little space to study, their health and development can be impacted in negative ways. Currently, it can take on average four or five years before Public Rental Housing (PRH) is allocated to such families.
For a long time the Hong Kong Government has refused to provide rent allowances to low-income families, regulate rents, or develop"transitional housing" because of fears it will then be impossible to prevent temporary housing becoming permanent. This has left an expansion of the public housing stock as the only available solution.
Community Housing Movement
Mr Ho and his colleagues at HKCSS identified the social housing model that has developed in the Netherlands as a potential solution to some of Hong Kong’s key woes. In the Netherlands, social enterprises and housing associations, rather than the government, have led the way in this field. By way of example, Mr Ho highlighted a project built on idle land in Amsterdam, using modular units for transitional housing.
The Community Housing Movement (CHM) was launched in October 2017. HKCSS took on the role of intermediary within the CHM, soliciting idle residential properties from private developers and individual owners, renovating these properties and then subletting them to qualified non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social enterprises. The goal is to provide transitional accommodations and support services to individuals or families queuing for PRH, and who are on low incomes and currently in inadequate housing.
Aside from providing affordable housing, CHM places an emphasis on improving quality of life through co-living and the provision of a range of suitable social services. As of Sept 2021, a total of 506 units were available across different districts in Hong Kong, serving a total of 694 households and 1936 people. The rent charged is based on ability to pay, and the duration of the lease is at least two years.
The operators of these projects are responsible for managing the properties and the tenancies, and are also required to help residents develop their self-sufficiency and build a sense of community with other tenants. This can be achieved through organising activities such as collaborations on improvements to living conditions, and through the teaching of employment skills.
The Modular Social Housing Project was launched in September 2018 through the joint efforts of The Community Care Fund, The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, and several construction companies, NGOs and social enterprises, with HKCSS as the main coordinator. The innovative modular integrated construction (MIC) method used in this project is the most efficient, economical and environmentally-friendly way to build transitional social housing on idle land, Mr Ho explained.
The three MIC developments that are completed or under construction have one-, two- and three-person units, which allows for the maximum number of transitional housing units to be made available.
Social and Policy Impact
After three years of this project a study on its social impact and outcomes was commissioned. Overall, tenants were happy with the cost and size of their housing, the improvement in relationships within their household, and the support available within their immediate community. Over half of the respondents said they now felt under less psychological pressure, and a similar percentage said their self-confidence and self-esteem had improved.
But they did express some frustrations around the sharing of facilities, and uncertainty regarding their hopes for moving to PRH.
In terms of CHM’s policy impact, Mr Ho said that the success of the projects to date had demonstrated to the government that transitional social housing can benefit grassroots families and gain public acceptance. This was reflected in the government’s decision in October 2021 to increase its funding for transitional social housing to HK$11.6 billion.
Mr Ho conceded that there were some practical issues to overcome when building transitional social housing. These include higher than anticipated costs, construction delays, and resistance from local residents, as the public often perceive transitional housing tenants as a drain on their districts’ resources.
However, he noted that this model not only helps increase the supply of affordable housing, but also paves the way for a new collaboration between the non-profit sector, the government and the private sector in terms of housing construction and operation.