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The Public Rental Housing Waiting List is Getting Longer
Prof. Richard Wong SBS JP
2017年12月16日
For many in Hong Kong our housing problem is high prices and high rents – a shortfall in housing. They conclude that the most adversely affected are the low-income and middle-income households so government must build more housing for these folks, which then means more public sector housing.But there is another way of viewing our housing problem. High prices are not bad news for homeowners and landlords, only for prospective homeowners and renters. Our problem is that 51.5% of our households are now renters. Viewed from this perspective the real housing problem is the unequal distribution of housing wealth.Given that prices and rents have risen many times against income it would take at least a generation to build enough housing to meet the shortfall in housing. Hong Kong’s divided society cannot wait that long.I am not against a government policy to continue to build public housing units. But I believe the units should be offered to eligible households either for purchase or rent (with an option to buy later).For existing occupants of public rental-housing units, I favor giving them the option to buy their unit at an affordable price, and with appropriate caps on the unpaid land premiums and enabling financing arrangements.For the owners of existing subsidized homeownership units, I also favor having their unpaid premium appropriately capped so that there is an incentive to payoff the outstanding amount and become bona fide owners of private property.Let me explain why building more public rental housing units would not solve our housing shortage any time soon and will continue to divide society.Between 2006 and 2016 the number of households living in the private rental-housing sector increased by 178,800 from 351,100 to 529,900 (see Table 1). The total number of households in Hong Kong had only increased by 280,200 from 2,226,800 in 2006 to 2,507,000 in 2016.Table 1: Number of Households by Accommodation 2006-201620062016DifferencePrivate rental households351,100529,900178,800Public rental households701,000761,30060,300Private owner households822,600844,10021,500Subsidized owner households352,100371,70019,600Total households2,226,8002,507,000280,200Private rental housing households were only 15.8% of the total number of households in 2006, but had grown within 10 years to 21.1% by 2016. Their growth constituted 63.8% of the total increase in households.The relatively small private rental-housing sector has had to absorb the lion’s share of the total increase in households. It is not surprising that sub-divided housing units have blossomed in this sector. As a consequence, rents and property prices have escalated, the demand for housing has continued to be robust, and private developers are building ever-smaller units.Meanwhile the applications waiting list for public rental housing units has shot up from 97,300 in 2006 to 284,800 in 2016. And the so-called “waiting time” has increased from 2 to 4.1 years. Where did these additional low-income households come from?On the surface, these figures seem to suggest that the demand for public rental housing is increasing. The government goal to reduce the waiting time has missed the target again and again. One commentator even concluded, “public housing policy is failing those most in need.” But this is a superficial rendering of what is happening in Hong Kong’s housing sector.A survey conducted by the government in 2005/6 showed that 25% of those on the waiting list lived in public rental housing and 10% lived in subsidized ownership units. The average household size and age of the applicants was dropping rapidly because the number of one-person household applicants was rising. In 2005/6, 43% of those on the waiting list were one-person householdsIn 2016, the number of non-elderly one-person household waiting list applicants constituted 47% of all applicants, with 25% living in public rental housing units and 21% living in subsidized ownership units. Among the general waiting list, 25% were living in public rental housing and 12% were living in subsidized ownership units.Since the waiting list has risen enormously in the past 10 years, it is reasonable to conjecture that not a few of those now living in private rental housing originated from the public housing sector as well. This implies that a large fraction representing the majority of the demand for public rental housing actually comes from within the public rental housing and subsidized ownership sector, especially among non-elderly one-person households.All of us know households have life cycles that affect their size and composition in an organic and evolutionary manner. The decision of whether and when to form a separate household depends on the incentives people face, but getting onto the waiting list for public rental housing is practically costless (subject to eligibility). So judging the intensity of the demand for public rental housing solely on the length of the waiting list is not without its pitfalls.The issue is especially troublesome because Hong Kong’s rapidly ageing population, combined with the long life expectancy of the elderly, is creating additional demand for housing. Both the elderly and the young want housing at the same time. The situation is particularly acute in the public rental-housing sector. The shortfall is exacerbated by the inherent rigidities of a public system that builds relatively homogeneous units that do not allow for the exchange of units through a market system.As a result, elderly members of a household do not vacate their units, so younger adult members seek to move out. This shows up in the rapidly declining average household size in the population.First, long life expectancies mean that a growing number of households are now made up of elderly one-person and two-person households. In the public rental-housing sector, the average household size has declined from 4.77 in 1980 to 2.75 in 2016. Allocation rules for public rental housing units have also favored the elderly. In 2016, 41.1% of all elderly households above the age of 60 lived in public rental housing.There are significant differences in household characteristics between public and private renters. The number of public renter households of one andtwo persons increased between 1996 and 2016, but the number of households with three or more persons declined (see Figure 1). Among private renters, the main increase from 2006 to 2016 was in the number of three or more person households.Another important characteristic among public renters has been the rapid increase of elderly households (aged 60 years or higher) from 1976 to 2016 and the decline of younger households aged 20 to 39 from 1986 to 2016 (see Figure 2). By contrast, among private renters elderly households are not as important as younger and middle-aged households (both increased from 2006 to 2016).Since 1996, all the increase in elderly public rental-housing households has been due to the increase in one-person and two-person households (see Figure 3). In 2016, elderly households constituted 48.1% of all public rental-housing households, of which 27.6% are one-person households and 28.8% are two-person households.Among middle-aged public renter households (age 40-59), the continuous rise in one-person and two-person households was especially rapid from 1996 to 2016. Moreover, the number of households with three or more persons actually dropped after 2006.A number of factors are responsible for such a development. Public rental housing allocation rules give preference to one-person households above the age of 40. Adult children are more likely to leave middle-aged parent households, especially if this helps reduce household income so that parents would not have to pay double rent on account of becoming a well-off family. And finally, there is the rapidly rising divorce rate, whose main incidence has fallen on public rental middle-aged households.All these factors have driven down the average household size in the public rental-housing sector. These developments, together with the subsidized owner sector, has contributed to the growing number of applicants on the waiting list for public rental housing units.Adult children, whose parents are private homeowners, can get financing from their parents to purchase private homes. Those in the public sector have to depend on the government – the ultimate landlord – to get assistance to solve their housing demand needs. But financing is not available from government so the solution is to queue for public rental units on the waiting list. The problem with this administrative allocation is that it is inefficient.The inefficiency shows up in many ways. The allocations of pubic rental units are dependent on criteria adopted by the Housing Authority. The criteria are not necessarily bad, but they tend to be rigid and are often behind the times. Established criteria are difficult to change and tend to be defended by vested interests long after they are useful.An obvious example of major inefficiencies is the homogeneity of the units. The primary official consideration is often fairness. But this becomes a barrier for parents and adult children to live together because units are too small for two generations to live in the same quarter. Another example is that the allocated units may be too far from the parents’ home causing other losses.The inefficiencies can spill over into other non-housing areas. It is a no-brainer that many of the elderly households living in the public rental-housing sector are in need of domestic care. Mr. C K Law, Secretary of Labour and Welfare, has recently floated the idea that about 600,000 domestic helpers might have to be recruited by 2047 to care for the needs of the elderly poor. Obviously, most of these foreign helpers will be serving public rental-housing tenants.The natural question to ask is, why aren’t some of these elderly households staying with their children? Or better still, why aren’t some of the children moving in with them? There are of course many reasons why this is not happening. But surely one of them is that the rigidities of the public rental housing program and its regulations do not provide such flexibility. Only bona fide housing markets can perform such facilitation.If the government believes that building more public rental-housing units would shorten the waiting time, then it is betting that supply can eventually catch up with demand to clear the waiting list. But the longevity of our elderly population will drive the demand for public rental housing for a long time to come. Hong Kong’s housing shortage will not be solved any time soon. Society will continue to be divided between “haves” and “have-nots” and the feeling of injustice will not abate.If this is the only approach the government has, then the waiting list will only get longer and longer because the only hope for vast numbers of people needing housing is to join the waiting list. Supply will continue to lag behind demand. Building ever more public housing will create the kind of perverse incentive that also plagued the 1950s resettlement policy to clear squatters. The number of squatters actually increased from 300,000 in 1954 to 600,000 in 1964. Eventually, more than a million squatters had to be resettled because more and more people voluntarily turned themselves into squatters hoping to be resettled. This is the Say’s Law of public housing: supply creates its own demand.Chinese Version :公屋輪候名冊愈來愈長王于漸教授 SBS JP對不少香港市民而言,房屋問題就是房屋供應短缺引致樓價高兼租金貴,低收入與中等收入家庭首當其衝,因此政府須為這些階層增加房屋供應,亦即增建公營房屋。其實還可從另一角度檢視觀房屋問題。高樓價只對有意置業者和租客不利,對現有業主和地主並非噩耗,問題是租戶佔本地家庭比例高達 51.5%。由此著眼,房屋財富分配不均,才是問題核心所在。樓價與租值遠高於收入增幅的現象既存在已久,至少須經歷一個世代,本地建屋進度才可望追上需求。香港社會的分化問題卻已是刻不容緩。我並非反對政府續建公屋的政策,而是認為公屋單位應可供合資格住戶購置或租住,並提供先租後買選擇。對於現有公屋租戶,我提議讓他們以可負擔之價格購買其單位,由政府鎖定補地價金額,並提供融資安排。至於現有居屋單位住戶,我同樣主張在適當水平鎖定補價,為業主提供提早清償補地價的誘因,以便成為擁有私人住宅的真正業主。下文將詳加闡釋何以增建出租公屋不能為供應短缺問題對症下藥,並會進一步分化社會。2006至2016年期間,私樓租戶數目激增178,800,由351,100增至 529,900(【表1】),同期全港住戶總數僅由2,226,800升至2,507,000,為數合共280,200。表12006-2016年按居所性質劃分的住戶數目2006年2016年差額私樓租戶351,100529,900178,800公屋租戶701,000761,30060,300私樓自置居所住戶822,600844,10021,500資助自置居所住戶352,100371,70019,600全港住戶2,226,8002,507,000280,2002006年,私樓租戶佔全港住戶比例僅為15.8%,但短短十年之間,在2016年增至21.1%,增幅佔全港住戶總增幅63.8%。私人住宅租賃市場相對較少,卻反而要容納全港住戶增幅中的大多數,市場上湧現「劏房」單位,也就不足為奇;結果導致租金與樓價同時飆升,房屋需求有增無減,私人發展商則轉而興建更細小單位。上述10年之內,公屋輪候名冊中申請數目由97,300躍升至284,800;所謂「輪候時間」,則由2年延長至4.1年。增幅如此大的低收入家庭,究竟從何而來?表面上,新增數字似乎顯示出租公屋需求日漸殷切,無奈政府在縮短輪候時間方面一再延期達標,有論者就此斷言:「公屋政策未能照顧需求最殷者。」但對於香港房屋市場現況,如此說法未免流於表面。據政府在2005/06年度進行的一項調查顯示,公屋輪候名冊中有25% 為現有公屋租戶,另有10% 則居於居屋。隨着單人住戶數目提升,申請者的平均住戶人數與年齡,同告急劇下跌。該年度輪候名冊中,有43% 屬單人住戶。2016年,非年長單人住戶申請者佔輪候冊上總數47%,其中25% 為公屋租戶,21% 屬居屋住戶;輪候冊整體住戶中,公屋租戶佔25%,居屋住戶則佔12%。鑑於輪候名冊數目近十年來大幅攀升,可以推論,私樓租戶中亦有不少原本租住公屋。這意味着對出租公屋的需求,其中包括大批來自公屋及居屋的住戶,而以非長者單人住戶尤甚。眾所周知,人生周期影響住戶的人數與組合。雖然成家立室、自立門戶的決定因人而異,但只要符合資格,輪候公屋單位無需任何費用,單憑輪候名冊中數目斷定公屋需求是否殷切,難免有失偏頗。再者,香港人口急劇老化,加上長者預期壽命增長,房屋需求自然百上加斤;不論年輕人或長者,同樣存在需求,在出租公屋方面尤其明顯。況且現行公屋政策一成不變,所建單位設計千篇一律,亦缺乏市場機制可容住戶互換單位,公屋短缺問題只會變本加厲。結果長者不會歸還公屋單位,年輕成員需遷出自立門戶,這由平均住戶人數急劇下跌可見。首先,人口預期壽命增加,單人及雙人長者住戶的數目隨之上升。1980年,公屋租戶每戶平均人數為4.77名,至2016年則減至2.75名。2016年,全港年過60的長者住戶中,有41.1%居於出租公屋。公屋與私樓租戶的特點顯然有別。1996至2016年,公屋租戶中單人及雙人住戶有所增加,三人或以上住戶則逐漸減少(【圖1】);至於私樓租戶,自2006至2016年,以三人或以上住戶增幅最高。從【圖2】可見公屋租戶的另一重大特點。1976至2016年期間,年屆60或以上長者住戶激增;1986至2016年的30年間,20至39歲組別的年輕住戶數目則下滑。對比之下,私樓租戶中長者住戶則遠較年輕及中年住戶次要,後兩類住戶在2006至2016年期間均見增加。自1996年以來,長者(年屆60)公屋租戶的數目增幅,主要源自單人及雙人住戶增長(【圖3】)。2016年,長者住戶佔整體公屋租戶48.1%,其中27.6% 屬單人住戶,28.8% 屬雙人住戶。中年公屋租戶(年齡介乎40至59歲)之中,1996至2016年單人與雙人住戶續升之勢尤其急劇;事實上三人或以上住戶之數目自2006年之後下降。上述趨勢的背後原因包括:公屋分配規則給予40歲以上單人住戶優先權;中年住戶中,成年子女為免父母繳交富戶租金而自願遷出;離婚率急升,也集中在中年公屋租戶之中。公屋租戶每戶平均人數因而日減;公屋住戶人數的轉變,加上居屋住戶,成為公屋輪候名冊的兩大來源。父母若為私樓業主,成年子女可藉父母支援,在私人住宅市場置業。公屋租戶子女則須靠政府(全港最終地主)資助,以解決其房屋需求;由於政府並無直接提供置業資助,他們唯有輪候公屋。以行政手法分配公屋單位,弊病在於效率偏低。效率偏低呈現於多方面。分配出租公屋基於房屋委員會所制定的準則,有關準則本無不妥,可惜過於僵化,未能與時並進,但既定成規不易改變,縱使不合時宜,既得利益者亦往往全力捍衛。例如單位設計過度劃一,就充份反映效率偏低。政府每以公平為考慮基礎,但單位面積太小,實在不利兩代同堂。又例如子女獲分配公屋單位,但距離父母居所太遠,造成不便。低效率亦會影響其他方面。不少公屋長者住戶,確實需要家庭傭工照顧。勞工及福利局局長羅致光先生近日提出,至2047年或需聘用60萬名家庭傭工,以照顧貧困長者的需要。顯然此等外籍傭工會有大部份以服務公屋租戶為主。這些長者住戶何以並非與子女同住?若論較理想的安排,為何子女不遷進有關公屋與父母同住?原因固然不一而足,但可以斷言,出租公屋分配制度及規條過於僵化必為其中之一。真正自由的房屋市場才能提供箇中所需靈活性。假使政府相信增建出租公屋有助縮短輪候時間,則無異於打賭供應定將追上需求,清除輪候名冊。然而長者日益長壽,勢必長期帶動出租公屋需求。香港房屋供應短缺,不會在短期內得以化解;本地社會持續分為「有產階級」和「無產一族」,社會不公的怨氣也就難以消除。若政府只採取此政策,則輪候名册只會愈來愈長,因大部份人的住屋唯一希望只有參加輪候,供應將繼續被遠遠抛離。在不斷增建公屋的負面影響下,1950年代但求安置寮屋居民的徙置政策弊端亦會借屍還魂。回顧往昔, 1954至1964年的10年之間,全港寮屋居民由30萬倍增至60萬;當年為求獲得安置,自願變為寮屋居民者日眾,最終政府須為逾百萬寮屋居民提供居所。這正是公屋供應的薩伊定律(Say’s Law) ––需求由供應而生。