CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Uneven distribution of land the root of all evil

HONG KONG (SE): Speakers at a forum organised by the Justice and Peace Commission, pointed out that the government should address the uneven distribution of land before claiming that there is a shortage of land.
The forum, held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Wanchai, on June 19, was organised in response to a consultation launched by the government about the supply of land in the next three decades.
A study by the Planning Department claimed that Hong Kong will face a land shortfall of at least 1,200 hectares for developing residential, commercial, industrial areas and infrastructure before 2046. 
The Task Force on Land Supply listed out 18 options to increase land supply for people to indicate their preferences during a five-month consultation period which started on April 26. 
These options include private recreation areas such as the Fanling Golf Club, brownfield sites, farmland to be developed with private parties, land reclamation in different parts of Hong Kong except the Victoria Harbour, fringes of country parks and even half of the Plover Cove Reservoir. 
Jay Yam Chun, spokesperson for Concern for Grassroots Housing Right Alliance, said during the forum that she cannot choose any options proposed by the task force, as she does not know whether the government will use most of the newly-generated land to build more luxury flats unaffordable for the majority of people, or public housing as well as other facilities needed by the public.
Above all, choosing any option will mean she agrees that there is a shortage of land in Hong Kong, a notion with which she strongly disagrees. She cited recent figures from the Census and Statistics Department which indicate that there are 2.55 million households in Hong Kong, with 2.75 million housing units. In other words, there are enough units for every household. 
She emphasised that the housing problems in Hong Kong are not caused by the lack of land, but its uneven distribution as well as policies that favour the rich and property owners. While the rising property prices have increased the wealth of property owners, as well as their ability to exploit the poor, limited taxes are imposed on them. She believes vacant property tax, as well as the asset value-added tax, should be implemented to discourage the ownership of properties as a luxury commodity.
She said the grassroots people are now facing a problem of living in more expensive and smaller flats due to ever-increasing rents. Some are even forced to move into hidden and illegal flats, such as the cubicles in factories.
She observes that urban renewal only means land deprivation, as the land generated is often used to build luxury buildings of which the rich are able to buy more than one unit as an investment, instead of building public housing. Another problem is that the original tenants cannot afford to live in the same district, as urban renewal raises the general cost of living in the area.
She stressed that while the government claims that the recommended public to private supply ratio of housing units is 6:4, this is ambiguous as it is measured in terms of units not area. She believes only a small percentage of the newly-developed areas is actually used to build public housing and urged the government to disclose the ratio in terms of area.
She also stated that the government should not promote the housing ladder any more, as the grassroots can only afford public housing now and the dream of acquiring home ownership scheme flats and moving on to private flats has become extremely remote given skyrocketing prices.
Ng Cheuk-hang of the Land Justice League, suggested that the 18 options may have been decided by those with vested interests instead of the general public. He also questioned whether the government would actually accept the recommendations of the task force after the consultation, or throw the report in the bin and come up with its own development plans.
He said the living conditions of the grassroots has become worse due to increasing rent and that subdivided units are not the worst kind of housing at present. He pointed to a survey done by the Neighbourhood Level Community Development Project, released in May, which says that over 10,000  people have no choice but to live in subdivided, renovated pig sheds in the New Territories. 
He called it is ironic that a similar number of new flats have been hoarded by developers in an attempt to sell them at higher prices later. 
Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai said he was saddened to celebrate a number of funeral Masses recently for people who were driven to commit suicide by housing problems. He said that while he believes that people should always pray hard and seek a solution first, there is an ethical issue behind such tragedies.
He said that according to Catholic social teaching, land is a resource gifted by God to be shared by all so that people can live with a sense of security. Although the Church allows the ownership of private properties, the interests of the public should not be forgotten.
He lamented that land and property in Hong Kong have become implements for generating income and a way to manipulate those without such tools. He believes the government allows the problem to get worse because their income is proportional to the price of land being sold.
He said that it goes without saying as to whether there is a lack of land in Hong Kong and who are the people who occupy most of the land. He urged government officials to think from the point of view of humanity.
The forum was attended by around 150 people and over 20 raised their views in the one-hour question and answer session. Apple Wong Sau-ping said the lease of the Fanling Golf Club should not be renewed as the club is making a huge sum of money with a low government- subsidised rent, while the basic living needs of the grassroots have not been met with 2,800,000 people still on the waiting list for public housing.
According to a government study, 5,000 to 6,000 flats can be built on the site in Fanling if developed. 
A 61-year-old housewife said the information in 76-page consultation book is too complicated so she will not choose any options. She said she only knew that there are unused government dormitories and school premises which can be developed at once. 
A 15-year-old teenager said that there are many options that he believes the government should not even consider for development. One example is the Plover Cove Reservoir, a main source of water supply where the adjacent country park is a popular place for hiking and cycling. However, he supports the use of Fanling Golf Club, as the private recreation site is only available to those who can pay its expensive membership fee.
Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, the chairperson of the task force who was present to introduce the land options, said the purpose of the consultation is to gather opinions. He encouraged people to take part even though they may not agree that there is a shortage of land, as those filling in the questionnaires are not obliged to choose any options and are also welcome to put down their views in the opinion box. 

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