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

Hong Kong (CNN) Behind the gleaming skyscrapers and multi-million dollar homes that have made this city The most expensive real estate market in the world There lies a much less attractive parallel reality: one of the world’s seemingly intractable housing crises.

Welcome to Hong Kong, where The average home sells for close to $1 million – and even a Parking space It can reach close to a million — but where more than 200,000 people face a wait the least half decade for subsidized public housing.

Much less Billionaire’s Row on The Peak and its ultra-exclusive properties that routinely change hands by hundreds of millions of dollars, One in five people live below the poverty line – Defined in Hong Kong as 50% of the average monthly household income before welfare – many consider home cramped divided unit or even a cage in a dilapidated dwelling.

The cause of the problem, according to the city government, is relatively simple: a chronic supply shortage unable to meet the demand of the more than 7 million residents crammed into some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.

housing “tops the agenda,” City CEO John Lee insisted The first policy address In October, he pledged to build 30,000 units in the next five years — a promise that followed an order by the central government in Beijing to prioritize the issue.

But critics have long been skeptical Local government dependence on land premiums, sales and taxes, which account for about 20% of its annual revenue. Critics say this income stream provides an incentive for it to keep supply tight, limiting what can be done to solve the problem.

CNN asked the Hong Kong government if its revenue from land sales and insurance premiums influence housing policy, but has not yet received a response.

Units at Penny’s Bay Community Isolation Facility are empty on March 1, 2023.

Now, the recent sudden collapse of the city Harsh measures to combat covid He has thrown a curveball into the mix that – according to these same critics – offers a key test as to the government’s resolve to solve the problem.

Many are now calling for the authorities to repurpose the vast Covid-19 quarantine camps that the city built during the pandemic to isolate hundreds of thousands of people and which currently remain empty and unused.

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As Paul Zimmerman, a councilor for the Southern District of Hong Kong and co-founder of the urban planning advocacy group Designing Hong Kong, puts it: “The question now is: What do we do with them?”

Covid hangover and litmus test

The answer to this question may be less obvious than it appears at first glance.

The camps have been one of Hong Kong’s most controversial measures to combat Covid – side by side The longest state mask in the world And Mandatory hotel isolation periods of up to three weeks — and they disputed their construction time not only among those who decried what they saw as draconian quarantine requirements.

The camps have also angered critics of the government, who say their rapid 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 spending bill on the pandemic in the past three years has reached $76 billion (HK$600 billion), according to the city centre. Minister of Finance. CNN has reached out to the CEO’s office, security office, health office and development office about the costs of building and running these quarantine camps.

Public housing schemes are usually subject to years of red tape, but in the case of the quarantine camps, the government was suddenly able to “find” about 80 hectares of land and build 40,000 prefabricated metal units in a matter of months.

Brian Wong, of the Liber Research Community think tank, is among those asking why the government could not take a similarly quick approach and bypass red tape to solve what it has acknowledged is an urgent housing crisis.

Wong and others dispute the government’s claims Dependence on land revenue runs the risk of turning housing into a “structural problem” that cannot be “helpfully solved”.

Criticizing what he sees as official indecision and inaction, Wong says that “even if the government wanted to make land accessible to everyone, they wouldn’t do it because there is too much at stake.” poorest people.

He sees the vacant camps as providing a real test of the government’s resolve to act, and has called for the units to be repurposed into social housing, arguing that it would be “extremely embarrassing if those containers were left vacant or lost”.

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CNN asked the Hong Kong government what it plans to do with the former quarantine camps. She said she would announce her plans “after the decision is made.”

Small, but still desirable

Only three of the eight designated quarantine and isolation camps were used; the remaining five It was put on high alert as vaccination rates rose and infection numbers fell.

The largest and perhaps most well-known campsite is Penny’s Bay, a site next to Hong Kong Disneyland, where more than 270,000 people stayed in nearly 10,000 units during its 958-day run that ended March 1. Kai Tak cruise terminal and a third near the shipping container port. The rest is spread out along the northern outskirts of the city near the border with mainland China.

Each unit is about 200 square feet, which is about the size of a parking space and has a toilet, shower, and bed. Only some have kitchens.

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

Francis Law, who was posted to Penny’s Bay in late 2022, said that while simple, the facilities were sufficient to meet one’s basic needs and would provide an attractive temporary option for those on public housing rolls.

“If the government rents the units at around HK$2,000 to HK$3,000 per month [$254 to $382] And arranging a bus route to the nearest train station, I think will attract a lot of applicants, even if it is far from the main CBD.”

While some of the camps are built on land owned by local tycoons and loaned to the government, some argue that because the units are modular and can be dismantled relatively easily, they can be moved to more permanent sites – if the government is so inclined.

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

“Obviously we have land in Hong Kong, we have a lot of rural areas…but what we don’t have is land that is readily available for residential or commercial development,” said Ryan Ipp, vice president and co-head of research. In our corporation’s research center in Hong Kong.

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“The key is whether the government is really speeding up its action.”

Get creative

Others have more creative suggestions, inspired by how some units can be temporarily repurposed during lulls in the pandemic.

At one point, some units in Penny’s Bay were used for a contract University entrance exam for high school students who have been in close contact with infected cases; At another time, the camp hosted A.J small polling station.

Hong Kong-based architect Marco Siu is part of a group calling for the conversion of blocks in Benny’s Bay into a temporary health and wellness center, arguing that this would require only minimal remodeling and give authorities the option to reopen in the event of an outbreak. once again. It is happening.

Zimmerman, of Designing Hong Kong, said the land next to Disneyland could be used to expand the theme park or redirected to a new city.

Undersecretary of the Department of Defense for Security Affairs Michael Cheuk at the closing ceremony for the Penny’s Bay Community Isolation Facility on March 1, 2023.

It remains to be seen whether the government will heed any of these suggestions. Until now, she had been silent about her intentions.

A CNN spokesperson stated, “A detailed analysis and study will be conducted with the relevant government offices and departments. Future plans and arrangements will be announced after the decision is made.”

However, a spokesperson for the Development Office added that the units at Penny’s Bay and Kai Tak were “structurally designed for a 50-year life cycle” and confirmed that they are designed to be “dismantled, relocated and reused at other locations”.

For now, anyone hoping to get a glimpse of what the government is thinking about Closing ceremony As for Penny’s Bay earlier this month, it was likely a disappointment.

A band played “Auld Lang Syne” as their doors were closed and Michael Cheuk, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Security for Security Affairs, placed a massive lock on their bars.

“Camp Penny Bay Quarantine has accomplished its mission,” Cheok told the crowd.

Those same words were affixed to a banner hanging across its closed gates.

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