Redeveloping public housing: A bet worth taking

The government should step up phasing out sub-standard and sub-optimal PRH estates for efficiency and social welfare concerns.

Photo credit: Chris Lusher


When delivering his election declaration to run for Chief Executive, John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華) named ageing buildings as one of the housing problems the next administration should continue to tackle. Opening up Hong Kong’s green parks is one option, redeveloping old blocks with sub-optimal floor area ratios is another. However, when it comes to redeveloping ageing public rental housing (PRH), the government has shown a reluctance to make bold moves and simply treats redevelopment as a last resort rather than a valuable measure to enhance livability while increasing long term housing supply.

 

We’ve done this before

It is not as if large scale redevelopment is anything new in Hong Kong. As early as late 1980s, the then colonial government had already launched a Comprehensive Redevelopment Programme (CRP) to gradually demolish and redevelop 566 blocks built before 1973, with the programme being completed upon the clearance of Lower Ngau Tau Kok (2) Estate in January 2010.

During the period, a number of programmes have also been rolled out to assess old PRH estates not included in the CRP. The Comprehensive Structural Investigation Programme (CSIP), for example, was put into place in 2005 to ascertain the state of structural safety of PRH estates approaching or over 40 years old, and to assess the repair works needed for sustaining those estates for at least 15 years and the cost-effectiveness of such repair works.

In 2011, the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA) formulated the “Refined Policy on Redevelopment of Aged Public Rental Housing Estates (Refined Policy)”, in which the HA stated that it would consider redevelopment of individual estates with reference to four basic principles, namely:

  1. “structural conditions of buildings,
  2. cost-effectiveness of repair works,
  3. availability of suitable rehousing resources in the vicinity of the estates to be redeveloped, and
  4. build-back potential upon redevelopment.”

 

The Transport and Housing Bureau also noted in its paper submitted to the Panel on Housing of this Council in January 2013 that “the HA (Hong Kong Housing Authority) will critically review the redevelopment potential of its aged PRH (public rental housing) estates, in order to increase the efficiency of the use of older sites.”

A year later in the Long Term Housing Strategy 2014, however, the government toned down the effectiveness of redevelopment, claiming that it would “inevitably add further pressure on the HA’s ability in maintaining the Average Waiting Time target at about three years” and hence “could at best serve as a supplementary source of PRH supply.” The government has since repeatedly asserted that any massive redevelopment programme is not advisable.

Henceforth, although a total of 31 estates and 246 blocks approaching or over 40 years old having gone through the CSIP, only a handful of estates, including Wah Fu Estate in Pok Fu Lam, So Uk Estate in Cheung Sha Wan, Pak Tin Estate in Sham Shui Po and Tung Tau Estate in Wong Tai Sin, were announced as targets for redevelopment. The Housing Department states, it does not have exact statistics about the number of estates demolished and redeveloped into new housing estates.

Alice Mak Mei-kuen (麥美娟) from the Federation of Trade Unions contends that while it is understandable for the government to have its own concern over finding vacancies for displaced PRH residents, redeveloping old PRH estates should still be regarded as a credible way to address both housing and social issues at the same time.

“There are issues, particularly over low plot ratios in some old estates. You can have estates with as few as 40 households in one block,” Mak says. “So we are talking about [creating] perhaps ten times the number of households if these estates are redeveloped. Right now these land resources are just being wasted.”

Increasing land use efficiency in a place like Hong Kong is particularly crucial to long term housing supply. Taking the redevelopment work at Pak Tin Estate, the first redevelopment proposal under the “Refined Policy” for instance, a net gain of about 2,150 units, or almost 40% more than the original figure was achieved after relaxing the plot ratio from about four to six.

 

‘Smart’ redevelopment

Enhancing livability in public housing is also crucial to building a sustainable and inclusive society and encourage upward mobility. Revitalisation is an integral part of any redevelopment programme. So Uk Estate, one of the most distinctive large-scale public housing estates in urban area, is a clear example of community-focused redevelopment. Built in the 1950s and 1960s, So Uk Estate was planned for demolition and redevelopment in 2008 despite being in good condition as the high maintenance cost was too high. A So Uk Amenity and Community Building providing welfare services to children and disabled persons was completed in August 2016 alongside six new blocks. A two-storey neighbourhood shopping centre is also scheduled for completion by 2018/2019.

According to a former Director of Housing, the government is also looking into bringing new features such as solar energy and centralised refuse collection systems into PRH estates. Besides cutting operation costs, incorporating such measures into PRH redevelopment projects can also complement the government’s plan to build a smart and green city. While a minimal approach to redevelopment is economically viable, it will not meet the purpose of promoting equality and social mobility through it housing policies.

As of 31 March 2016, about 2.14 million people or some 30% of the population lived in PRH flats. A substantial number of them are living in blocks that are structurally sound, but which will increasingly fail the ever evolving standards of quality living. If the government has the political will to put its hands on country parks in search of residential land, it should also realise that public housing redevelopment is a worthwhile long term strategy and take action accordingly.

Alex Fok

Alex Fok

Alex Fok is a Harbour Times journalist monitoring Hong Kong’s daily political scene and diplomatic updates. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Economics, Politics and International Studies from University of Warwick and his master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a former committee member of the Warwick-based Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Service Society (WHKPASS) and was the chief editor of the society’s magazine – PASSTIMES.
Alex Fok

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