Forced to deliver speech via video, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam unveils measures to ease housing crunch

Shoppers watch as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivers her third policy address via video after her session at the legislative council was disrupted by heckling pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong on Oct 16, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures aimed at easing a housing shortage on Wednesday (Oct 16) as she battles to restore confidence in her administration and address widespread discontent after four months of mostly violent anti-government protests.

Mrs Lam was forced to deliver her speech via video after her annual policy address in the Legislative Council was aborted when some lawmakers repeatedly jeered and shouted at her as she began speaking. After aborting her speech in the chamber twice, Mrs Lam left the podium.

When the speech resumed, in video form, Mrs Lam started by condemning the violence that has escalated in the city the past four months, urging residents to protect Hong Kong's core values of rule of law and principles of inclusiveness, integration and mutual respect.

Given that the government in recent months had announced a series of measures in different sectors including ways to support enterprises, safeguard jobs, enhance child care services and support sports development, Mrs Lam zoomed in on four aspects in her speech - housing, land supply, improving people's livelihood and economic development.

Some short- and medium-term measures to tackle the housing crisis include increasing the funding for transitional housing from the promised HK$2 billion (S$350 million) to HK$5 billion, providing 10,000 transitional housing units in the next three years and offering relief for low-income households.

The Hong Kong Housing Authority (HKHA) will also accelerate the sale of unsold flats, even as it explores the feasibility of redeveloping its factory estates into public flats.

Meanwhile, the government will put up a private residential site in Anderson Road for sale in the first quarter of 2020, where the developer will be required to offer about 1,000 units at below-market prices to eligible first-time home buyers.

First-time home buyers will also soon be able to take out 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 current HK$6 million.

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As for increasing land supply, the government will prioritise the study of 160ha of brownfield sites for development purposes and invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance - a move Mrs Lam described as "a breakthrough in thinking".

She said the government 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".

Among other measures unveiled include a 20-month pilot scheme to debut early next year aimed at providing early intervention to children who exhibit signs of special needs, grants for parents of schoolgoing children, and a proposal to seek the support of mainland authorities to possibly offer tax concessions to local enterprises wishing to shift from exports to domestic sales.

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Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Associate Professor Sing Ming, however, said the measures unveiled are not quick enough to dramatically alleviate the current tension and reduce the protests "because the core demands among the protesters and the general public are not related to housing".

"Rather, they are related to the rule of law, to police brutality and full democracy," he said. "The measures of today are far from adequate to reduce the fervour of the ongoing protests against the government," he added.

In wrapping up her hour-long speech, Mrs Lam called on Hong Kongers to put aside differences and "stop attacking each other" in order to sail through adversities.

"Fellow citizens, so long as Hong Kong remains impeded by unresolved disputes, ongoing violence, confrontation and discord, our city cannot embark on the road to reconciliation and people will lose faith in the future."

"We must reverse the prevalent pessimistic sentiments and stop the disorderly behaviour," the leader said.

She added that while Hong Kong now faces "the most formidable challenge since our return to the Motherland", she believes efforts made to lay the solid foundation of Hong Kong would not be wasted.

"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."

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