Hong Kong asks: what to do with 40,000 empty Covid quarantine units in the event of a housing shortage?

hong kong

Behind the gleaming skyscrapers and multimillion-dollar homes that have made this city the world’s most expensive real estate market lies a far less appealing parallel reality: one of the world’s seemingly most intractable housing crises. .

Welcome to Hong Kong, where the average house sells well north of a million dollars – and even a parking space can cost close to a million – but where more than 200,000 people face expectations of at least half a decade for subsidized public housing.

Where far below the billionaire’s row of The Peak and its ultra-exclusive properties that regularly change hands for hundreds of millions of dollars, one in five people live below the poverty line – defined in Hong Kong as 50% of the median monthly household income before welfare – and many call home a cramped subdivided unit or even a cage in a run-down apartment building.

The cause of the problem, according to the city government, is relatively simple: a chronic lack of supply unable to meet the demand of more than 7 million residents crammed into what is already among the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods. world.

Housing ‘is top of the agenda,’ city chief executive John Lee insisted in his first policy speech in October, as he pledged to build 30,000 units over the next five next few years – a promise that follows an order from the central government in Beijing to prioritize the problem.

But critics have long been skeptical of the the local government’s reliance on land premiums, sales and taxes, which account for about 20% of its annual revenue. Critics say that stream of income causes it to keep supplies tight, limiting what can be done to fix the problem.

CNN has asked the Hong Kong government whether its revenue from land sales and bounties affect its housing policy, but has yet to hear back.

Now, the recent abrupt dismantling of the city’s tough anti-Covid measures has thrown a curve ball into the mix that – according to these same critics – offers a litmus test of the government’s resolve to tackle the problem.

Many are now calling on authorities to repurpose the sprawling Covid quarantine camps the city built during the pandemic to isolate hundreds of thousands of people and which currently sit empty and unused.

As Paul Zimmerman, Councilor for the Southern District of Hong Kong and co-founder of urban planning advocacy group Designing Hong Kong, put it: “Now the question is: what to do with them?

The answer to this question may be less simple than it first appears.

The camps were one of Hong Kong’s most controversial anti-Covid measures – alongside the world’s longest mask mandate and mandatory hotel isolation periods of up to three weeks – and opposed at the time of their construction not only among those who denounced what they considered to be draconian quarantine requirements.

The camps also drew criticism from government critics who said their quick and expensive construction belied the narrative that Hong Kong’s housing problem was simply unsolvable.

Hong Kong authorities have not disclosed to the public the cost of the network of quarantine facilities. But its total pandemic spending bill over the past three years was $76 billion (HK$600 billion), according to the city’s financial secretary. CNN contacted the general manager’s office, security office, health office and development office about the costs of building and running these quarantine camps.

Public housing projects are usually subject to years of red tape, but in the case of the quarantine camps, the government managed to suddenly “find” around 80 hectares of land and build 40,000 prefabricated metal units within months.

Brian Wong of local think tank Liber Research Community is among those wondering why the government can’t take such a quick approach and bypass red tape to solve what it has itself acknowledged to be an urgent crisis. housing.

Wong and others argue that the government would have reliance on property income risks turning housing into “a structural problem” that cannot be “significantly resolved”.

“Even if the government wants to make land affordable, it won’t because there’s too much at stake,” said Wong, who criticizes what he sees as official indecision and inaction that he says are at the expense of the city. poorest people.

He sees the vacant camps as a litmus test of the government’s resolve to act and has called for the units to be repurposed as social housing, arguing he would be “very embarrassed if these containers are left vacant or wasted”.

CNN asked the Hong Kong government what it plans to do with the former quarantine camps. He said he would announce his plans “after a decision has been made”.

Only three of the eight purpose-built quarantine and isolation camps were actually used; the remaining five were put on hold as vaccination rates rose and the number of infections fell.

The largest and perhaps the most infamous of the camps is Penny’s Bay, a site next to Disneyland in Hong Kong, where more than 270,000 people stayed in nearly 10,000 units during its 958 days of operation which ended on March 1. A second is located next to the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and a third near a shipping container port. The rest are scattered along the northern outskirts of the city, near the border with mainland China.

Measuring around 200 square feet, each unit is about the size of a parking space and contains a simple toilet, shower, and bed. Only some have kitchens.

Yet while the units are spartan, many argue they could still offer an attractive temporary solution for those who can’t afford the city’s high rents. In Hong Kong, according to data compiled by real estate agency Centaline, even “nano-apartments” measuring 215 square feet recently sold for up to $445,000, or more than $2,000 per square foot.

Francis Law, who was sent to Penny’s Bay at the end of 2022, said although simple the facilities were adequate to meet a person’s basic needs and would provide an attractive temporary option for people on social housing listings.

“If the government rents the units for around HK$2,000-3,000 per month [$254 to $382] and organizes a bus route to the nearest train station, I think that would attract a lot of applicants, even though it is far from the main central business district,” he told CNN.

While some of the camps were built on land owned by local tycoons and loaned to the government, some argue that as the units are modular and relatively easy to dismantle they could be moved to more permanent locations – if the government so wishes. wished.

A temporary isolation facility near the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on April 6, 2022.

“We obviously have land in Hong Kong, we have a lot of rural areas…but we don’t have land readily available for residential or commercial development,” said Ryan Ip, vice president and co-director of research at Our Hong Kong Foundation think tank.

“The key is whether the government actually speeds up its procedures.”

Others have more creative suggestions, drawing inspiration from how some of the units were temporarily repurposed during lulls in the pandemic.

At one point, some of the Penny’s Bay units were used to hold a college entrance exam for high school students who were close contacts of infected cases; in another era, the camp hosted a small electoral polling station.

Hong Kong-based architect Marco Siu is part of a group calling for the Penny’s Bay blocks to be turned into a temporary health and wellness centre, arguing it would require minimal overhaul and give authorities the possibility of reopening it in the event of a new epidemic arriving.

Zimmerman of Designing Hong Kong said the land next to Disneyland could be used to expand the theme park or be repurposed in a new town.

Undersecretary for Security Michael Cheuk at the closing ceremony for the Penny's Bay Community Isolation Center on March 1, 2023.

It remains to be seen whether the government will take these suggestions into account. He has so far been tight-lipped about his intentions.

A spokesperson told CNN, “A detailed analysis and study will be conducted with relevant government offices and departments. Future plans and arrangements will be announced after a decision has been made.

However, a Development Bureau spokesperson added that the Penny’s Bay and Kai Tak units were “structurally designed for a 50-year life cycle” and confirmed that they were designed to be “dismantled, transported and reused in other places”.

For now, anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of government thinking at the Penny’s Bay closing ceremony earlier this month will likely have been disappointed.

A band played “Auld Lang Syne” as its doors closed and Michael Cheuk, the undersecretary for security, placed a giant cut-out padlock on its bars.

“Penny’s Bay Quarantine Camp has accomplished its mission,” Cheuk told the crowd.

Those same words were plastered on a banner hung across her closed doors.


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