World's largest landlord is short of homes

Despite the time-worn adage that man cannot move mountains, this is exactly what Britain's 138- year-old tiny enclave off the southern coast of China is trying to do to solve a housing nightmare for its swelling population.

As part of what is considered to be the largest housing plan in the world, bulldozers have been zealously flattening entire hills in the rural New Territories to carve out additional construction space for new apartment blocks and industries. They have also been trying to provide earth fill for the government's massive land reclamation programs.

If the grandiose housing project proves successful, it could become a model for other overpopulated cities around the world. If it falls, it could ignite a potentially explosive social situation among Hong Kong's 5 million inhabitants.

At Sha Tin, one of the territory's new towns being built well away from the cramped urban areas of Kowloon and central Hong Kong, a sprawling mass of concrete structures has risen on what was just over a decade ago a relatively quiet fishing cove nestled between majestic, luscious green hills.

The Sha Tin Valley floor bustles with activity as cranes, trucks, and dredgers mar the landscape. Since 1977 its painted apartment blocks, split-level walk-about lined with trees and flowers, schools, commercial centers , football fields, roads, and race course have taken on the appearance of an emerging town. Many of its potential 570,000 inhabitants are already in residence.

True to Hong Kong's entrepreneurial spirit, the old has been vanquished by the new. Little remains of the area's past rural sentimentality. A few rice fields and enchanting village houses in traditional rural style persist. But with time they, too, will no doubt disappear beneath the shovels of urban expansion.

All this, Hong Kong planners maintain, is desperately necessary. Faced with squalid shantytowns, grossly overpacked temporary housing, and extortionate private rents, the government is seeking to cope with what could become a dangerous social situation.

Through a series of ambitious -- and controversial -- housing programs, the authorities hope to provide sufficient, moderately priced accommodation for 1.8 million people in Kafkaesque but functional complexes by the mid-1980s.

Critics have charged the housing plan doesn't go far enough. By their own account, government officials admit that the recent inpouring of immigrants has skewed housing demand from what it was when the 10-year plan was launched in the early 1970s.

Unlike most urban areas in the world, Hong Kong cannot count on predictable growth rates. It has always been forced to contend with disastrous influxes of both legal and illegal immigrants from China. Over the past two years, for example, more than 250,000 Chinese have entered the crown territory from across the border.

"We began to see the light at the end of the tunnel in 1977," observed an official of the Hong Kong housing authority."But when the new exodus of immigrants began, all our projections were thrown out of the window." With more than 140,000 families vying for public housing, there is a seven-year waiting list.

Hong Kong has suffered an acute housing problem ever since it was liberated from the Japanese in 1945. At the time, barely 600,000 people lived around the harbor areas of Hong Kong and Kowloon in what was then a quiet Oriental backwater.

But a tidal wave of Chinese immigrants shook Hong Kong out of its seclusion. With 100,000 newcompers per month, the population exploded to 1.8 million by early 1947. The influx continued, particularly during the 1949 upheavals.

The new arrivals set up houses wherever space was available. Colonies of up to 40,000 people packed into areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Thousands of families lived on rooftops and on junks and sampans. Shantytowns of corrugated iron, packing- case timber, and even cardboard boxes sprang up overnight. Filth was prevalent, since few electricity and sewage-disposal facilities existed, and most districts offered little protection against fire, landslides, and typhoons. "The place was submerged in squalor," a longtime resident remembers.

On Christmas Eve, 1953, a calamitous fire ravaged a Kowloon hillside shantytown, leaving 53,000 people homeless. This prompted the authorities to create Hong Kong's first low-cost public-housing program.

By Present standards, much of the emergency housing was of low quality. "But the object was to provide shelter, so we weren't too worried about aesthetics in those days," one official said.Most of the earlier housing units are being demolished to make way for better apartment blocks.

Hong Kong's population, however, continued to swell, further complicating the housing problem. For Hong Kong-based Chinese with relatives on the mainland, it has been an attitude of "there's always room for one more."

"Some flats were jampacked, with overflows out into the corridors or balconies. This is still very much the case today," a Hong Kong journalist said.

In 1962, China permitted 100,000 immigrants to cross over to Hong Kong in a six-week period. Toward the end of 1974, frustrated British government officials decided to take more stringent measures to curb the immigrant influx. They informed Peking, via London, that the territory would start repatriating illegal immigrants. Numbers dropped, but the problem remained.

In March 1979 Hong Kong's highly popular governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, made an unprecedented visit to Peking. There he warned the Chinese that continued influxes of immigrants, whether legal or illegal, could seriously undermine the economic and social future of the territory.

The Chinese, who have since recognized the importance of Hong Kong as a gateway to the West and a key to modernization, agreed. But they said the flow could not be completely halted until the gap in the two societies' living standards had narrowed.

Confronted with over 750,000 squatters, the government is being increasingly pressured to provide shelter. Singapore officials, buffeted by similar immigration swells, recognized that putting a decent roof over people's heads helps defuse the likelihood of a revolt. It acted accordingly by making housing its No. 1 priority. Hong Kong has moved along at a slow gait rather than a quick march.

But Hong Kong's squatters are not the only ones complaining. Among the hardest hit appear to be the Chinese middle class, who earn too much to qualify for public housing or government-run, low-cost ownership programs, but not enough to pay exorbitant private rents.

For a territory whose very existence is based on borrowed time, most entrepreneurs are out to make a fast buck. Rents are astronomical, yet the government refuses to introduce more than limited rent control. The long-terms effects, it argues, outweigh the short-term benefits.

As a result, Hong Kong's private residential housing, whether low quality or luxury, is among the most expensive in the world -- even more than in such places as Monaco and Lake Geneva.

Average middle-class dwellings go for $5,000 Hong Kong ($1,000 US) to $20,000 Hong Kong ($4,000 US) per month, depending on the setting and size. Smaller flats in less desirable areas cost $400 Hong Kong ($80 US) for a tiny studio to

"I still fail to understand how they do it," a US businessman remarked. As with many Westerners working in Hong Kong, his rent is covered by his company.

The government itself maintains that rents should make up about one-fifth to one-quarter of a person's income. But government statistics show that only 4 percent of Hong Kong's households earn more than $7,500 Hong Kong ($1,500 US) per month. Many moonlight to cover expenses.

Furthermore, while private housing represents 53.6 percent of the market, less than one-quarter of Hong Kong's 1.06 million households have been able to afford their own apartments.

As far as the government is concerned, the long- term answer for low-cost accommodation lies in its grand housing programs. "We are now building flats at the rate of 35,000 a year," explained Phil Reese of the Hong Kong housing authority. By the mid-1980s, if all goes as planned, most families (compared with the present 40 percent) will be living in public-housing estates.

The authorities are developing a home-ownership program in addition to the rental units. "But like everything we have in Hong Kong," Mr. Reese added, "we are oversubscribed."

The creation of such vast new urban estates, often a big improvement over some private housing, has also brought its share of problems. In one new Kowloon settlement, housing assistants found it difficult to provide efficient management. Immersed in a concrete sprawl, many inhabitants complained about a "lack of belonging."

"There was no individuality," explained one official.

Psychologists note that such complexes foster what is described as a "tourist" attitude -- namely, a sense that everything is short term. Many elderly, particularly those who lived in villages before their houses were razed and replaced by new blocks, are afraid to move into the new buildings. "They prefer to stay in the barracks, where they are on the ground and can easily talk to their neighbors," a housing assistant said. "They feel that being forced to live in a high block will cut them off from other people."

With Hong Kong's limited space, however, the crown territory appears to have little choice. The authorities have attempted to rectify many of the problems in their new complexes.

"Buildings are being given different shapes and color schemes to create a sense of individuality," another housing official said. "We even have different plants and flowers for different estates."

Yet Hong Kong remains a perfect example of overcrowding. And whether its herculean housing effort will be successful remains to be seen.

"What we are doing here is a gigantic social experiment," Reese says. "We learn as we go along, but I think we are being innovative. Other parts of the world will be facing similar problems within 10 or 15 years."

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