Hong Kong Leader Pledges to Ease Housing Shortage

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's embattled chief executive on Wednesday used his first policy address to outline a series of populist proposals to alleviate the severe housing shortages and air pollution that have bedeviled the city.

The chief executive, Leung Chun-ying -- who took office in July and has already weathered one legislative vote of no confidence, one vote to start an impeachment process and a series of large street protests -- pledged to help produce 100,000 housing units over the next five years by streamlining approvals, opening undeveloped land for housing and even using rock caverns and other underground spaces for development.

Despite a moderation in apartment prices, demand for housing remains intense, Mr. Leung said.

"Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings," he said. "Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and subdivided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people."

Large developments in Hong Kong take 10 to 20 years to approve and build because they involve considerable public consultation, elaborate engineering for building on the city's steep slopes and sometimes the construction of subway stops. Mr. Leung, 58, cautioned that his suggested measures might not bring quick relief.

His address came amid an increasing drumbeat of criticism over his administration, centering on his perceived close ties to the Chinese leadership and his actions during his election campaign. During the race, he concealed the fact that he had expanded his $64 million home without receiving government planning permission, while criticizing his opponent for similar transgressions.

Mr. Leung's tenure in office has been star-crossed almost from the start. A plan for patriotic education, which had been under preparation for a decade, set off huge demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes at the local government's headquarters when schools began moving to introduce it two months after Mr. Leung took office.

The subsequent revelation that Mr. Leung had sealed up an illegal extension of his basement with a brick wall several days before he began his run for office -- and then upended his opponent's election campaign by accusing him of illegal basement construction -- left him vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. Even Mr. Leung's moves to improve the affordability of housing have been troubled, as his steep taxes on short-term real estate purchases by people without permanent residency cards have antagonized wealthy developers, who want to be able to sell their apartments to whoever will pay the most.

In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Leung tried to change the political narrative by addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of the residents of Hong Kong, where an influx of money, much of it from the Chinese mainland, has led to yawning wealth disparities.

"While Hong Kong is a generally affluent society, there are still many people who live a hand-to-mouth existence," he said. "Public resources should be devoted to those who cannot provide for themselves."

Mr. Leung also promised to reduce air pollution, notably through the retirement of diesel trucks. He said his government would offer a total of $1.29 billion to the owners of more than 80,000 old, heavily polluting trucks, who will be required to retire them or replace them with new models.

The government said the plan would reduce roadside emissions of particulates by 80 percent and emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides by 30 percent.

While cars tend to draw more attention than trucks as pollution sources because of their greater numbers, American air pollution researchers working in Asia have found that the diesel engines in trucks and buses are a far bigger threat. They account for over 90 percent of vehicular emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides in mainland China, studies have found. Some studies have also found that diesel exhaust is carcinogenic, but this aspect of Chinese air pollution has been studied less.

In a bid to blunt the criticism against his leadership, Mr. Leung has sought the support of young people, who have become increasingly active in the past year in street protests, which have traditionally drawn more middle-aged demonstrators. The city's young people face higher unemployment than previous generations and more worries about housing affordability. But they also tend to be sympathetic to environmental concerns about encroachment on the city's many hillside parks, which developers regard as a hindrance.

"Our young people should recognize that the planning proposals and development options under discussion today are intended to address their future needs," Mr. Leung said. "It is all too easy for the government to sidestep the problem, but it is today's young people who will have to bear the adverse consequences in the future."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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