HK housing fix: Good, but not good enough

Hong Kong chief executive's pledge on Wednesday to resolve the territory's housing affordability crisis may seem long on promise, but falls short on practical solutions, analysts told CNBC.

Leung Chun-ying spent the bulk of his two-hour annual policy speech focusing on the real-estate market, calling housing "the most critical of all livelihood issues in Hong Kong." Among measures announced were more opportunities for lower-to-middle income citizens to become homeowners and for public rental housing residents to buy flats built by the Housing Authority.

The city's property prices have skyrocketed over 100 percent in the past six years and rank among the world's most expensive, according to Reuters data, fueled by an environment of low interest rates, surging demand from mainland buyers and a shortage of developable land.

This has become a main sticking point among the city's residents, especially the low-to-middle income households who are unable to buy homes. Home prices climbed 12 percent in the first 11 months of 2014, government data revealed last week, hitting fresh record highs in November.

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While public rental housing units are forecast to hit 77,100 in the next five years, experts say the most pressing issue is where exactly the land will come from.

"Despite Leung's efforts, the government has been unable to enhance short-term land supply so as to depress prices," said Joseph Cheng, professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

"People don't really expect any easing of the situation in the next two to three years. The chief executive now talks of reclamation, and we all understand that between talk and actual delivery of flats, it may be at least 8-10 years," he added, referring to plans to develop new towns outside of city areas.

Discussions last year to open up country parks, which make up around 41 percent of total land, to development sparked backlash from environmentalists concerned about bio-diversity. On Wednesday, Leung said he was taking into consideration factors like traffic, environment and air ventilation in the planning process and warned that society as a whole must make hard choices.

Residential buildings in the Lai Chi Kok district of Hong Kong.
Jerome Favre | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Residential buildings in the Lai Chi Kok district of Hong Kong.

"Clearly, he's recognizing that housing is a very serious issue and it's at the top of his list in terms of priorities. He's come up with a whole range of short, medium and long-term options as to how the administration proposes to address it," said Nicholas Brooke, chairman of Professional Property Services and former chief executive of Swire Properties.

Brooke also warned that the government doesn't have the capability to deliver the program that Leung wants. "The challenge is that each of his options involves a team approach, including a number of government departments and planning boards. However, if it is land held by the private sector, it obviously involves the corporation of the existing owner" which could complicate matters, he added.

Possible fixes to Leung's plan

Brooke suggests creating a land acquisition agency, or a body entrusted to putting Leung's program together. "There are too many players in the game at the moment, too many vested interests. This is a horizontal game, and we need an agency that can step in and help deliver," he said.

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Yan-Yan Yip, chief executive officer at think tank Civic Exchange, says a long-term housing strategy is needed, involving a full-scale reassessment by the government of how housing is being utilized and whether public housing is being efficiently allocated

Improvements in affordability may reduce political tensions in the short-term, she added, referring to pro-democracy protests last year.

One of the more popular solutions bandied about among experts is the sale of government-owned flats to free up more units. However, that remedy is a double-edge sword, warned Andrew Freris, CEO of Ecognosis Advisory.

"The issue is that you've got 40-45 percent of the population owning their homes. If something was done to cause prices to drop significantly, this will benefit upcoming potential purchases but it will lower the value of [homes for] the middle class population."