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Hong Kong’s OTHER housing: cheap or free apartments

Housing in Hong Kong is inexpensive or rent-free! Seriously? Well, a lot of it is – the homes for almost a third of the population. The city has a huge government housing program, and an ambitious new administration is going to make it grow faster than ever. Andrew Lam reports.

HONG KONG’S NEW GOVERNMENT is preparing to climb the mountain known as The Housing Problem – an issue that has stymied all previous administrations. The city has limited building space and a big population.

Is it solvable? It may be. A quick review of the history of our public housing system might help generate useful perspectives and food for thought as to how we could effectively battle the problems and, borrowing the words of President Xi Jinping, provide a genuine sense of fulfilment to our citizens—having a home being a key part of living a fulfilled life.


In the early 1950s, government planning in the area of public housing was effectively absent. The large number of migrants who came to Hong Kong as a result of political unrest in Mainland China intensified the housing shortage in the city, resulting in an emergence of housing units on the roofs, and sprawling squatter residences on the hillsides, including one in Shek Kip Mei, the area next to Boundary Street on the Kowloon peninsula.

This was simply a huge area of tightly packed small homes fashioned from wood or corrugated iron or any materials that could be gathered by migrants and refugees. It was unsanitary and unsafe – as would be horribly obvious one Christmas.

A devastating fire destroyed the Shek Kip Mei squatter area on Christmas Eve of 1953.

The fire in Shek Kip Mei squatter area left many residents displaced. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with this marked the commencement of the development of public housing in Hong Kong. The accident displaced more than 50,000 people overnight, all of whom had to be found temporary shelter – and then long-term accommodation which was not a squatter hut.

To deal with the needs of fire victims, the government set up a fund to develop multi-story resettlement buildings and appointed a Commissioner for Resettlement to oversee the project. The former Housing Authority, a semi-independent organisation, was also founded to offer low-income families self-contained flats. In the same year, eight Mark I resettlement blocks were erected in Shek Kip Mei to house fire victims. These were six-story towers containing private rooms for each family, but with shared facilities.

Mei Ho House in Shek Kip Mei has been beautifully refurbished, but was originally very basic. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

These have all been demolished, except one (above), which has been smartened up and preserved as a relic of history.

Fires and landslides made the public and the government understand that unauthorised housing and squatter houses could not be allowed to remain as long-term housing options.

The resettlement programme was introduced in the early 1950s. After ten years the number of people living in resettlement estates totalled 500,000, but there was still more than 600,000 people living in squatter huts.


The next big change came in the 1970s, when a crusading governor named Murray MacLehose arrived in Hong Kong. In 1972, he announced a 10-year housing programme to house 1.8 million people in self-contained units between 1973 and 1982. It was said to be the biggest residential building project in world history at the time, creating numerous new towns of hundreds of thousands of people.

Public housing bodies were reorganised, and the Hong Kong Housing Authority was established to implement the government’s public housing plan.

Huge numbers of public housing blocks were built in a massive program. Photo from Thomas Kinto/Unsplash.

The Home Ownership Scheme was introduced in 1976 to help low-income families and public rental housing tenants own their own homes, especially those whose income exceeded the limit for applying public housing, but who were still unable to keep up with the rising home prices in the private market.

Six courts of flats were put on the market at a lower price than private buildings in the first phase of the Home Ownership Scheme, assisting the public in purchasing their own properties.

The Private Sector Participation Scheme encouraged developers to get involved in the construction of Home Ownership Scheme flats in order to accelerate housing construction. The first batch of privately developed public flats went on the market in 1976.

Developers are encouraged to get involved in the construction of Home Ownership Scheme flats. Photo from Manson Yim/Unsplash.

Another essential set of building blocks that underpinned the Ten-year Housing Programme was the development of new towns, with Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun being the first three areas chosen for such purpose. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, public housing estates like the Fuk Loi, Lek Yuen, Wo Che, Tai Hing and Yau Oi estates were completed in these new towns, housing more and more residents.

The creation of major new towns worked well, and the program continued.

In the 1980s, Tai Po, Yuen Long, Fanling and Sheung Shui joined the ranks and became second-generation new towns.

Afterwards, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the establishment of three more new towns, Tin Shui Wai, Tseung Kwan O and Tung Chung, with Tung Chung.

According to the latest statistics, the current population of these new towns is about 3.57 million, or nearly half of the city’s population, and is expected to rise to 3.68 million in 2024.

Development of residential properties in new towns. Photo from Thomas Kinto/Unsplash.

From an urban planning point of view, the development of new towns has important bearing on the city’s population distribution. Traditionally, the population was concentrated in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and New Kowloon. The development of new towns has effectively dispersed residents to districts throughout the New Territories. In this process, the construction of public housing estates has played a leading role in promoting the development of new towns.

Importantly, during this period, residents in the public housing system enjoyed substantially better living conditions. Historical data suggests that the per-capita living space of public rental housing flats has increased from 2.23 square meters (24 sq ft) in the 1950s to 13.47 square meters (140 sq ft) in 2021.

Modern public housing in Hong Kong. Photo from Manson Yim/Unsplash.

Indeed, it may come as a surprise to many that Hong Kong actually boasts one of the largest public housing systems in all developed economies, with nearly one-third of all families accommodated in our public rental housing units. This compares to about one-fifth of the United Kingdom, and single digit percentages for Japan and the United States, for instance.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Hong Kong should be satisfied with its housing situation. Quite the contrary, despite the significant strides of development made over the past few decades, the average living space of the city measures a mere 16 square meters, trailing by far most other developed cities in Asia.

At 6.1 years, the average waiting time for public rental housing is also the longest since the turn of the Millennium.

Chief Executive John Lee hosted a press conference on his maiden Policy Address. Photo from SAR Government’s website.

The new government has sought to devise bold, effective, and perhaps most importantly, timely measures that remedy the problem, so that meaningful improvements could finally be made on this important livelihood issue.

New Chief Executive John Lee, in his first policy address last week, accorded very high priority to the issue of land and the housing shortage. Specific actions announced include the establishment of the Steering Committee on Land and Housing Supply and the Task Force on Public Housing Projects.

If there are good solutions to these problems, these teams of specialists will be tasked to find them.

Andrew Lam is a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong

Image at the top by Skull Kat/Unsplash

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