The Forever Queue: Waiting for a PRH in Hong Kong

By Michelle Ngan & Ceci Huang

“I don’t have the ability to buy a home or even to rent a flat since the rent is too high to afford; the only way out is to apply for public rental housing.”

Ms Chung has a hope as most of the people on this planet do – to own a flat. Yet, in Hong Kong, this simple wish has become inaccessible for her. Statistics by Midland Realty reveals that the property price has been surging for over two times within the past ten years. That has been the biggest hurdle for most citizens. To gain a shelter, many believe that applying for public rental housing would be the best option.

Housing problem has long been a trouble that Hong Kong has to face. As the world’s fourth-most-densely-populated region, it is not hard to imagine the difficulty of settling over 7 million population. Although having the most number of high rises around the world, apparently not all people in Hong Kong can afford to live among the clouds. But the situation is not better on the ground either. Midland Realty revealed that the property prices have been doubled in just 10 years, while the average price per square feet is over $13,000. How can one imagine that just a square feet could cost you an income of a month? That is undeniably too high to afford for most citizens, especially the grassroots.

According to the survey conducted by Demographia in 2018, the housing in Hong Kong is the least affordable among 293 cities around the globe; the property prices are regarded as “severely unaffordable”.  Meanwhile, the report by Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre in 2014 also indicated that the overall property price has been separated from the actual affordability of the citizens. The future remains a mist for the majority of people who haven’t own a property of their own.

Public rental housing is one of the solution policy that Hong Kong government provides. Since the 1950s, the public housing plan has been solving the housing needs for low-income families and now covers over 40 percent of the population.

However, the living condition of public housing is still unsatisfied for many people. The minimum standard of per capita living area is 7 ㎡, which is even smaller than a single cell in the Stanley Prison. The data nowadays seems to be above 13 ㎡, but it actually includes a large number of single flats and the real situation for the household flats is shrinking. New public housings constructed in recent years have also been reducing the size. Government responses that regardless of the shrinking size, they are more livable through the improvement of design. Not many people are buying what he said, but they don’t really have a choice but to apply for one, as Ms Chung mentioned repeatedly.

Living in Hong Kong, rents can be the largest share of expenditure on personal or family life. Ms Chung raises her five-year-old daughter on her own. She can do nothing but to give up her job to be a full-time mother. It’s true that she might be luckier than those who are living in a subdivided flat, but her landlord has raised the rent for over 4000 dollars in just three-year time. Under financial constraints, she has successfully applied for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), but she said the amount is not even enough to cover the rent.

According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report, over 1 million people in Hong Kong were living below the official poverty line last year. The Housing Authority also noted that the average waiting time for public rental housing is over 5 years, while households with elderly would just need to wait for about 3 years. Ms Chung’s family includes her parents who are over 80 years old, but they have been waiting for over four years.

Although the government grants priority to applicants with urgent needs, Ms Chung commented that the waiting time is still too long. She has also sought help from social workers and district councilors but failed. That makes her lose her hope.

Over the last four years, the waiting time for general applicants has rapidly increased from 3 years to over 5 years. Even for the elderly applicants, they now need to wait for 2.9 years comparing to 1.7 years in 2014. The waiting queue for public housing in Hong Kong gets longer and longer, but the supply of public housing is insufficient to cope with the surge, resulting in a serious social problem. What is the reason behind?

Taking the example from Ms Chung, although she is a single parent taking care of her 5-year-old daughter and her elder parents who are over 80-year-old, has been waiting for PRH flat for more than 4 years. However, as stated by the Housing Authority, households with elderly members usually are granted with a flat within 3 years. Being hopeless, she has actually sought help from social workers and district councillors but failed. She commented that there are not clear guidelines like where these families with urgent needs should seek assistance from.

Another reason, as applicants still waiting in the queue often talk about, is the occupying of the “well-off tenants”. Their income and asset are above the limit and theoretically shouldn’t stay in PRH any more. To solve the waiting problem and improve the utilization of flats, Housing Authority has issued a “well-off tenants policy”, which requires them to move out if they earn 5 times more than the income limit, or have asset 100 times over the income limit, or have a property of their own. Not to mention the difficulty and low efficiency of assessment and supervision in actual operation, it simultaneously raises another dilemma: how many of them are really “well-off”? If not, where should they go?

It is true that compared to those who live in subdivided flats, PRH tenants are in a much better condition. It is also understandable to ask them make room for those who in urgent need after their own situation has improved. But the problem is after they are forced to move out, they still won’t be able to afford the private housing on the market, even those which are smaller than their former rented public housing. The core issue is the sky-high price of private property, which places these “well-off tenants” in the middle of nowhere. They can now afford something, but not yet a flat.

Having a shelter is such fundamental for every human being, so how can the government save these people in need? Apart from increasing the number of public housing estates, the government has also introduced a couple of new measures including the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” in the Policy Address, but is it effective enough to tackle the housing problem? This is still debatable.