Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam yesterday announced measures aimed at easing the city's housing shortage, as she fights to restore confidence in her administration and address widespread discontent amid a waning economy and more than four months of mostly violent anti-government protests.
In her annual policy address, Mrs Lam zoomed in on four aspects: housing, land supply, improving people's livelihood and economic development.
To increase land supply, the government will prioritise the study of 160ha of privately owned brownfield sites for development purposes and invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance - something Mrs Lam described as "a breakthrough in thinking".
She will push on with controversial plans to build a series of artificial islands east of Lantau to create 1,000ha of land, even though "some people in the community have concerns".
To meet the ever-growing demand for temporary housing by vulnerable households as they transition into longer-term housing, Mrs Lam said funding will go up from the promised HK$2 billion (S$350 million) to HK$5 billion. Some 10,000 transitional housing units will also be available in the next three years.
The Hong Kong Housing Authority is expected to quicken the sale of unsold flats as it explores the feasibility of redeveloping its factory estates into public flats. The government will also put up a private residential site in Anderson Road for sale in the first quarter of next year, in which the developer must offer about 1,000 units at below-market prices to eligible first-time home buyers.
Government estimates showed that major developers, including Henderson Land, New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties, are sitting on "no less than 1,000ha" of agricultural land.
First-time buyers will soon be able to take out bigger loans of up to 90 per cent for all properties worth HK$8 million or less, up from the current ceiling of HK$4 million. Buyers can borrow 80 per cent of the property value for flats worth up to HK$10 million, up from the existing HK$6 million.
Associate Professor Edmund Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong called some of the measures "bold", adding that the focus on housing reflects Mrs Lam's belief that livelihood issues are the root causes of the current upheaval.
While the move may help her secure support in the business sector and in her traditional power base, he cautioned: "The housing measures may generate uncertainty in the market (amid) the economic downturn and the lack of confidence among the populace. As there is no blueprint for political reforms or new measures in public engagement, the protest movement is unlikely to be cooled down by the address in the near future."
Other initiatives include a 20-month pilot scheme to help children who exhibit signs of special needs, grants for parents of school-going children and a proposal to seek the support of the mainland authorities to possibly offer tax concessions to local enterprises wishing to shift from exports to domestic sales.
Mrs Lam also called on Hong Kongers to put aside differences and "stop attacking each other".
"We must reverse the prevalent pessimistic sentiments and stop the disorderly behaviour," she said.
"So long as we have unwavering confidence, adhere to the 'one country, two systems' principle, stop violence in accordance with the law and restore social order as early as possible, Hong Kong will soon be able to emerge from the storm and embrace the rainbow."