- Words by Gary Wong
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and has been ranked by Forbes as the world’s most expensive city to buy property in for the seventh year running. The pricing for a residential flat is now averaging between HK$16,000-20,000 per square foot. To make residential property more affordable, developers are increasingly focusing on the development of small flats, primarily targeted at young, single buyers.
The high cost of living in Hong Kong means that it is the norm for both parents to work, in turn relying on grandparents for childcare. This adds to the already strong cultural tradition of families staying close or together as a unit. In fact, unless the elderly require special care, it is not common for them to go to a care home. Showing filial respect for one’s parents is a virtue of Chinese people.
The combination of cultural expectations and the high cost of housing mean that it is typical for a family of four or more to live together in an apartment unit of no more than 600 square feet.
But despite the obvious challenges facing Hong Kong, with its rising share of older people, limited space, and a culture of two-year lease lengths, there is sadly little awareness of the issue facing older adults among the public. There are few signs that the authorities are interested in the challenges either, instead focusing on wider issues, such as economic competitiveness.
What could the authorities do?
Since there is a respect for free trade and enterprise in Hong Kong the government is not minded to impose new conditions on private developments.
While the government already has planning rules for new developments aimed at setting minimum standards for the disabled, such as wheelchair access, these could be broadened out and extended to include senior citizens. For example, expanding the current limit on Buildable Floor Area that can be allocated towards recreational use from 5% by say two to three percentage points more, provided the developer commits to integrate a scheme or recreation space that caters to the needs and usage specifically for older adults to help them remain active and integrated in their communities.
In Hong Kong, unless older adults require special care, it is not common to put them in a care home.
The government could specify a minimum size for apartments in schemes when they tender a land sale for development to ensure that the homes have the flexibility to accommodate multiple generations.
There could also be tax incentives, such as tailoring allowances for people living with their parents to be more generous to those families living in more crowded accommodation.
A good example of where a project has focused on this demographic is a suite of four projects developed by the Hong Kong Housing Society, a non-government and non-profit organisation, which built 1,224 units between 2003 and 2015. Three – Jolly Place, Cheerful Court, and Tanner Hill – are wholly for older adults, while one, Harmony Place is built for a mix of buyers alongside their elderly parents and offers shared facilities such as a gym, swimming pool, and an activity room. While these schemes have been very successful, delivering fewer than 1,300 units in the past 15 years is definitely not catching up with the market demand.
For private developers, the idea of adapting schemes for elderly living is still a work in progress. The sector could look to improve the quality of the offer by working with other sectors to ensure buildings can be adapted as residents age.
Developers should also be encouraged to develop products that focus on wellness, which have a positive impact on residents’ physical health, mental state and productivity. For example, it’s been shown that thoughtful material usage, colours, biophilia design, lighting and use of texture, are features that become increasingly important as people age.
There are also good opportunities to cooperate with technology and service providers to include improved telecommunications and internet facilities that senior citizens increasingly take advantage of and may come to rely on more in the future.
Constraints of space and pricing will mean the solution will come from adapting existing stock rather than building new properties in Hong Kong. This means enhancing the living areas to include wider corridors, more spacious rooms, a more joyful atmosphere and more greenery as well as better public amenities, to allow older people to remain within their communities.
Looking ahead, Hong Kong will always have a high density. That is fine in itself, but in order to meet the challenge of an ageing population the government and developers must work together to ensure the existing stock is adaptable.