Govt needs to do more on affordable housing

Updated: 2010-08-19 08:41

By Violetta Yau(HK Edition)

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With a series of determined measures from the government aimed at curbing the sizzling property market, many aspiring home buyers have high hopes they can finally get on the property ladder.

However, following Wednesday's auction that saw two sites in Ho Man Tin and Hung Hom go under the hammer for a staggering sum of HK$7.61 billion, 20 per cent higher than the market's expectation, those who held out home saw their dreams crumble. The government measures do not appear to have done much to cool down the market. Instead, the outcome has only strengthened the public perception that the government's attempt to curtail property speculation is futile.

The government launched the tactical moves in the hope of curbing speculation in the red-hot property market and cooling the property fever. These measures include banning the resale of first-hand uncompleted flats before the initial transactions are completed, and requiring buyers of those flats to forfeit 10 percent, instead of the current 5 percent, of the total purchase price if they cancel the transaction.

The initiatives may have short-term effects to cool down soaring home prices. But the high closing prices and developers' fevered response indicate that developers now are interested only in the high-end property market and the development of luxury flats, continuing their optimism in anticipation of solid growth in future property prices. The construction of small and medium sized flats, which are within the affordability of ordinary people, no longer appear to be on their agendas.

Despite plans by the government to offer for sale three additional residential sites later this year in a bid to boost the land supply, I am afraid it will not help resolve the issue of affordable housing for the middle-income group, which is a pressing livelihood issue facing the government. Developers can always reserve their land and restrict their housing supply to prop up the market.

In addition, with low interest rates and the Federal Reserve's fiscal policies that cause the international financial market to be flooded with hot money, there is never a shortage of big spenders armed with abundant cash to snap up luxury flats in the city. The problem of obtaining mortgage loans may not even be an issue for them. Therefore, analysts expect a property shortage to persist for the next two years, and property prices to rise a further of 10 to 15 percent by the end of next year.

Most home buyers in Hong Kong can only afford small or medium-sized apartments, at best not those on the Peak or other prestigious areas. Boosting the land supply cannot tackle the growing need for affordable housing when the warfare to buy property for luxury developments prevents most of the population from building their own homes.

Indeed, home prices have soared more than 40 percent since the beginning of 2009. Prices of some luxury apartments have already surpassed record highs set in 1997. Despite the fact that the economy has rebounded from the financial tsunami, most of the working population still do not share in the economic benefit.

In the face of inflation and despite the economic recovery, many employees can count themselves lucky if they can have a pay rise of a few percentage points. Many in the middle-income range have to scrimp and save every month in order to pay mortgages for their properties. Some even joke that they work their entire life for developers. One day we will wake up and find ourselves heavily in debt to our banks and it seems there is no end in sight in our quest for affordable homes.

I am afraid the government is barking up the wrong tree in the attempts it has made to cool the property fever. Making flats affordable for the community should be a priority in government housing policies. It should seek ways to resolve the issue of affordable housing and improve the standard of living in Hong Kong instead of kowtowing to big spenders.

The resumption of the Home Ownership Scheme should be one of the ways of dealing with the issue. The government should stop looking for excuses, with its complaints about a shortage of land to evade the issue. There have been a lot of old sites vacated for years, such as the old Kai Tak Airport site. The government should also examine other forms of subsidies to help prospective home buyers buy their flats.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 08/19/2010 page2)