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Hong Kong's embattled leader falls short on housing promises

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying took power in 2012 with a pledge to make housing more affordable, but since then both home prices and the waiting list for public housing have jumped by a third, stoking calls for him to step down.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying took power in 2012 with a pledge to make housing more affordable, but since then both home prices and the waiting list for public housing have jumped by a third, stoking calls for him to step down.

While demands for greater democracy paralysed parts of Hong Kong in 2014, many protesters were also voicing their anger over what they see as a widening wealth gap that has kept homes out of the reach of many of the city's 7.2 million people. "If we don't eat, drink and go outside, we still cannot afford to buy a flat," said Kelly Chan, a 28-year-old manager of a legal department at a Singaporean bank in Hong Kong. Chan and her boyfriend, who earn a combined monthly salary of HK$100,000 (US$12,900), have spent one fruitless year looking for a small apartment of about 400 square feet (37 square metres). "We are very frustrated at government policy. The rents and the money you have to pay for a flat have increased so much." In a city where the monthly average wage is HK$14,100, many share that frustration. There are about 200,000 people living in what the government calls "inadequate housing", including cubicle apartments and cage homes - wire mesh hutches stacked on top of each other.

Although Leung has unveiled a series of property curbs since late 2012, including a 15 per cent tax on purchases by foreigners, the city's red-hot real estate market has showed no signs of cooling. Hong Kong home prices, which have risen about 130 per cent since 2008, continued to break records last year.

More than a quarter of a million applicants are still on a waiting list for public housing, a 32 per cent increase from June 2012, just before Leung took office. According to government data, the number of people sleeping on the street has risen to 746 from 511 over the same period.

In an annual policy address on Wednesday, Leung reiterated he would seek to boost the supply of land in the former British colony, where housing is packed into just 30 per cent of the territory.

The government, which forecasts Hong Kong will need to build one new town that would house roughly 600,000 people per decade over the next 30 years, has pledged to provide 480,000 flats in the next decade and has identified about 150 parcels of land for potential residential use.

But critics say Leung's housing policy is seen to only benefit the city's powerful developers. The government has sold 73 residential sites to more than 40 developers since 2012, including Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd and Hong Kong's largest developer, Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd.

Moving the city underground, creating man-made islands and sea reclamation are among the options proposed by the government to increase available land. Hong Kong's 6,800 hectares of reclaimed land - about 6 per cent of its territory - already houses 1.9 million people.

Developing the city's cherished country parks, an idea constantly raised by government officials and developers, has proved unpopular with many residents and environmentalists.

Even some property tycoons are against the idea of developing Hong Kong's green belts, woodlands and wetlands that take up about 70 per cent of the territory. "There are other ways to achieve that goal without encroaching on the green side of Hong Kong, which I think is very special," said Swire Properties Ltd's Chief Executive Guy Bradley.

Despite tightening measures aimed at bursting the property bubble, analysts said last year was another fruitful year for developers. Home prices hit a record high for a seventh consecutive month in November, according to latest government data. The total value of 2014 sales for new private homes was the highest since records began in 1996, as steep discounts from developers attracted pent-up end-user demand.

With a policy address that many say lacked any major initiatives, Leung will have his work cut out to appease a large part of the population that is dissatisfied with his government. "Compared with the housing policies over the past two years, this year's policies are even more disappointing to the grass-roots, especially the subdivided flat dwellers," said Lui Yi-shan, a social worker at the Society for Community Organization, referring to Leung's policy address earlier this week.

Leung's land policies have simply not worked, said Centaline Property Agency research director Wong Leung Sing, who has spent more than 20 years in Hong Kong's real estate industry. "The problem is way more complicated than he thought. I'm afraid it will take longer than his five-year term for him to sort out the land supply problem."