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Hong Kong property scion says social housing a top priority

City's largest property empire aims to provide 2,000 apartments for low-income families

Hong Kong

ADAM Kwok, the young executive with the keys to Hong Kong's largest property empire, sees tackling the city's housing crisis as a top priority.

His family company, Sun Hung Kai Properties (SKHP), has announced that it will lease three plots of land in the New Territories to non-governmental organisations for eight years for a nominal sum of HK$1 (S$0.17). The donation will yield around 2,000 apartments for low-income families waiting for public housing, helping to ease pressure in the world's least affordable real estate market.

"When any decent-minded person sees these new immigrant families, just people lining up, living in these subdivided units in the city, you would have a heart for them," the 36-year-old tycoon said in an interview ahead of Friday's announcement. "Especially us being in the situation, we can do quite a lot more."

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Hong Kong is notorious for its sky-high home prices. Unaffordable housing has forced many into dire living conditions, residing in steel container boxes, illegal industrial sites or apartments the size of a car parking space. The government estimates that more than 200,000 people live in small subdivided units, and one in five residents is below the poverty line.

Since the anti-government protests began in June, local property developers - almost all owned by billionaire families - have been criticised by Chinese state media as land hoarders and blamed for pushing up the cost of real estate. This is partially fuelling young people's rage.

Mr Kwok said this particular project started in June, before the protests erupted, and so was not related to the demonstrations. He declined to be drawn on the current political situation.

"I think when you see the project, not only the launch announcement, but the thought we put behind it, you'll see that it's something we put our heart into," he said. An executive director at SKHP, he is responsible for leading the firm's property-development businesses.

At US$35.8 billion, the Kwok family is Hong Kong's wealthiest clan, according to a Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranking of Asia's richest families. Their empire is also among the most exposed to the city's anti-government protests.

Late last month, Wheelock Properties announced similar plans to donate land that can be used to build apartments for people waiting for public housing. Rivals New World Development Company Limited, controlled by the Cheng family, and Henderson Land Development, controlled by the Lee clan, took the initiative earlier to give away plots.

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, of CK Asset Holdings, has offered HK$1 billion (S$174 million) to help small and medium-sized businesses hit by the protests.

On Friday, CK Asset said it will also study using farm land for housing development, although cautioned that transforming such land for housing may take a "relatively long time" to benefit those in need.

SHKP said Friday it will team with Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Welfare Council. One project called United Court in Yuen Long, when completed in early 2022, should provide homes for 1,600 families and ultimately benefit 5,000 families, the developer said.

SHKP also announced that it will develop transitional housing at two other sites in Kam Tin South and Kwu Tung town. The three projects will span close to 400,000 sq ft and provide 2,000 transitional apartments.

United Court is located near public transport and doesn't require government involvement in building large-scale infrastructure, such as roads. It will have leisure and recreational spaces, as well as sports and children's facilities. Weekend flea markets will be held on a regular basis and there will be social enterprise stores, such as a community kitchen and barter-trade shops. BLOOMBERG