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Sunday, Jun 23, 2024

Why focus on temporary housing that takes years and millions to build?

Why focus on temporary housing that takes years and millions to build?

Kai Tak protest highlights the challenges of the ‘light public housing’ project, which is now neither cheap nor quick. Far better to repurpose decommissioned quarantine units, which are also modular, and focus on the real mission – permanent public housing.
Twenty-five years after the last flight took off from Kai Tak, the area is again generating the noisiest sound bite in town.

The arguments against locating 10,700 “light public housing” units at the Olympic Avenue plot are many and varied. Local residents have protested against the lack of public consultation, the potential delays in opening the city’s second central business district, the obstruction of views from other low-level residential buildings in surrounding complexes, the significant increase in traffic and congestion and the potential fall in property value. The list goes on.

Regardless of the validity of their claims, for lack of better words, the protesting residents simply do not aspire to be part of a social melting pot. The government has tried hard to motivate a new Hong Kong spirit, but these residents are not ready to share their neighbourhood with people on low incomes.

Early opposers lawmaker Kitson Yang Wing-kit and Real Estate Developers Association chairman Stewart Leung Chi-kin might have forgotten that, not so long ago, the government went on a mission to unearth the underlying reasons behind the 2019 civil unrest – social inequality and housing appeared to be at the root of the problem.

Yang and Leung seem to have learned quickly, however, backing off from their original strong stance. Yang abstained from voting for, rather than voted against, the HK$15 billion first-round funding proposal in the Legislative Council. Private developers led by Leung have also softened their stance on the government proposal, saying they were fine with it as long as the temporary housing units were sited some distance away from the old runway – a prime site for luxury private housing.

Secretary for Housing Winnie Ho Wing-yin has been dealt a challenging hand. Her original good intention was to quickly provide transitional housing for families suffering in subdivided flats or cage homes, and those forced to live on the streets. Indeed, Ho might be the first secretary since the 1997 handover to tackle the long wait for public housing head-on. She has probably done more than all of her predecessors combined in the first seven months of her tenure.

But if she located all 30,000 proposed temporary housing units outside the urban core, she would be criticised for marginalising the poor working-class and low-income families. If she borrowed vacant sites from developers, she would be mischaracterised as colluding with the private sector.

And if she had not included Kai Tak, critics could have questioned why, given the mega development, she could not find a small piece of unsold land for social good. Location-wise, Ho faces a lose-lose situation.

It makes sense to build temporary units only if they can be completed very economically and efficiently. That is, much lower than the current HK$26.4 billion price tag for all 30,000 flats and faster than the two years officials say construction will take.

As a former director of the Architectural Services Department, Ho should know better than most the benefits of modular construction, especially when her promotion was very much built on putting up quarantine centres quickly in the battle against Covid-19.

Could the thousands of modules from these recently decommissioned centres not be disassembled, transported, rearranged and reused, to minimise waste and reduce construction time?

Do these quarantine units not offer better living conditions than subdivided units or metal cages? And, is it not more economical and faster to retrofit these units, especially if this is all on a temporary basis?

A year ago, then-chief secretary John Lee Ka-chiu hailed the seven-day construction of the Tsing Yi isolation centre as “miraculous”. Ho could pull off another miracle if she can inspire architects, engineers and contractors to design beautiful structures and connecting architecture to accommodate the existing modules. Modular construction does not have to look anything like the infamous Penny’s Bay quarantine centre.

Although Ho might fall short of taking care of 100,000 families, the repurposed buildings would be sustainable, cost-effective and take much less than two years to home many struggling families.

With the first phase of funding approved by Legco, the construction of temporary housing at Kai Tak, at a premium price, is imminent. Ho’s bigger mission, which she should have focused on from the start, should be building high-quality permanent public housing, which would bring a long-lasting positive impact for the people of Hong Kong.

Good design can lift a property, a neighbourhood and build a sense of belonging. As we relaunch Hong Kong, we should also rebrand public housing, which does not have to be boring and built to cookie-cutter standards – exemplified by a typical floor plan that is as uninspiringly displayed as the Housing Authority logo.

From Spain and France to Australia and Singapore, social and public housing estates in the rest of the world are becoming more pleasant and sophisticated. In Singapore, more than 80 per cent of the population live in public housing under the Housing & Development Board (HDB) scheme. New HDB projects rival private residential towers; they are well-designed with nicely integrated gardens and landscaping. One in particular, the Pinnacle@Duxton, is right in the heart of the central business district.

Ho should not forget her roots. Architecture can help solve social problems, and reimagining public housing could encourage a giant leap towards the social equality we have been longing for.
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