Hong Kong Announces Housing Reforms As Government Faces 20th Week Of Protests

3 hours ago

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivered her first policy address Wednesday since pro-democracy protesters took to the city's streets almost five months ago.

But she had to do so by video, after chanting opposition lawmakers forced her from the chamber.

The annual policy speech was unusually short and focused on the deep social and economic inequalities that have proliferated in Hong Kong. Lam pledged to provide better welfare policies while making substantial increases in affordable housing.

"Every Hong Kong citizen and his family will no longer have to be troubled by, or preoccupied with, the housing problem, and they will be able to have their own home in Hong Kong, a city in which we all have a share," she announced.

Chief among Lam's proposals will be to redevelop about 700 hectares (75.3 million square feet or 1,730 acres) of unused private land for public housing in the city's northern New Territories region.

Much of Hong Kong's industrial and real estate sectors are dominated by a handful of family-run business conglomerates. These tycoons have amassed an estimated 100 million feet in land reserves, much of it left as farmland, according to a research report from Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.

The tycoons have left land reserves largely undeveloped even as the city experiences a housing crunch and skyrocketing property values. Hong Kong's government is currently short 67,000 public housing units to meet its self-imposed housing supply target by 2028 because of a lack of public land.

In the last month, state-owned outlets in mainland China have been calling on Hong Kong's government to begun acquiring private land for public housing projects in order to quell the ongoing anti-government protests.

"The most straightforward solution to Hong Kong's housing problem is to increase land supply, and build more public and private residential units," the state-run Xinhua News wrote in a September editorial. "Hong Kong's number-one priority is to quash the violence. At the same time, we must also pay attention to the deeper conflicts and problems in society, implement effective measures, and completely eradicate the root cause of public unrest."

Hong Kong conglomerate New World Development announced last month that it would donate 3 million square feet of its land reserves for public housing. Sun Hung Kai Properties, another Hong Kong conglomerate, has said it will cooperate with government initiatives to build affordable housing but only on rural land plots already zoned for subsidized housing.

Despite zoning some farmland for public housing, the city's government has often been mired in decades of bureaucratic wrangling to consolidate fragmented properties and convert it for public use. As a last resort, Hong Kong officials can use a law called the Land Resumption Ordinance to seize private land for public projects.

Hong Kong has been racked by sometimes-violent anti-government protests since June. The demonstrations were set off by an extradition bill that could have sent suspected criminals to be tried in mainland China, where legal experts say there is no independent judiciary. Lam later permanently suspended the bill, but the protests have since morphed into a broader call for government transparency and universal suffrage.

The protests have destroyed public confidence in Lam's Beijing-backed government as well as the Hong Kong police force. A poll released Wednesday by Hong Kong outlet Ming Pao before Lam's policy address shows 53 percent of residents blame her government for increasingly violent protests.

Meanwhile prominent pan-democratic lawmakers and activists said Wednesday that Lam's address did not resolve fundamental issues, and they would not stop demonstrations.

"Please step down...[Lam] is the culprit. She is the cause of people taking to the streets. How dare she deliver her policy address here? How dare she talk about governing Hong Kong?" Tanya Chan, a lawmaker with Hong Kong's pro-democracy Civic Party, told local media. Chan was expelled from the Legislative Council chamber for chanting.

Scenes of chaos in Hong Kong's legislative council included opposition lawmaker Raymond Chan projecting the slogan "five demands, not one less," onto the wall behind Lam in the legislative building, before he, too, was expelled from the chamber.

Lam has refused to capitulate to the protests' core demands. She has said universal suffrage is not on the table, according to Hong Kong paper the South China Morning Post, and has refused to grant amnesty to the more than 2,500 protesters arrested for rioting since June.

Amy Cheng contributed reporting from Beijing.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.