SCMP Saturday, December 9, 2000


Housing policies discriminate against the elderly

In a recent reply to a question raised in the Legislative Council, Housing Department official Lau Kai-hung once again underscored the Government's discriminatory policy on public housing for senior citizens.
Many lawmakers have complained repeatedly about this issue. On the surface, the department's single and two-person units for senior citizens have a reasonable floor area of 172-square feet.
If such a flat is shared between two elderly tenants, each of them will have a space of 86 sq ft. In theory, this appears to be above the normal standard of 75 sq ft per person. Discounting the areas taken up by the kitchen and toilet however, a person can hardly stretch his limbs uninhibited after the unit is furnished with two beds. There is hardly any space left for the tenants to store their personal belongings, let alone proper closets, dining tables or refrigerators.
The situation is so appalling that one has to see it to believe it. The tenants have to resort to bunk beds to create a little additional space.
More seriously, it is not only inconvenient but also unsafe for someone over 60 to climb up and down from the upper deck of a bed every day. Such homes have in effect been reduced to a health hazard for the poor and elderly who cannot afford to live elsewhere.
The department has come up with three justifications for its unreasonable and inhumane arrangement. First, officials argue, the 172-sq ft units are not always meant for two tenants. They are also used to accommodate one person.
Second, elderly residents can also choose to live in refurbished units in older housing estates which can be as big as 334 sq ft. Third, old couples can be allocated larger units when the standard 172-sq ft ones in the district are already fully occupied by other, single, elderly people.
I am familiar with these points and that there are alternative options for senior citizens. And it is a widely publicised fact that more than 100,000 applicants are still on the waiting list competing for the scarce housing resources.
I have heard such official lines so many times that I may be even more fluent in expounding them than many of the department's spokespeople.
But the crux of the matter is that a large number of elderly people are not given a fair deal in what is probably their last request from the community.
It is imperative for officials to take on board their special circumstances. They have been yearning for a decent living environment in new public-housing blocks for years. Given their lifelong contribution to society, this is a humble demand. It is a shame that many of them end up in conditions not much better than a kennel. They do not have the time to wait for belated improvements.
Humane considerations aside, double standards have been applied at the expense of citizens who have reached 60. The unfair practice needs to be remedied immediately.
Applicants below 60 are given marginally bigger units in anticipation of their future children. Those above the age threshold are considered infertile and are thus assigned the smallest units designed for one person, as their families are unlikely to expand.
In addition to age, the housing allocation system is also flawed by sex discrimination. As Mr Lau has revealed, the department holds that men above 60 married to younger wives are considered more likely to produce children. Hence, such couples are given preferential treatment for slightly bigger units.
Older women married to relatively younger men, on the other hand, are again considered infertile. As a result, they are only entitled to the smallest units. Hong Kong has yet to legislate against age discrimination. However, the Equal Opportunities Commission can at least intervene on the grounds of sex discrimination.
It will be a major dereliction on the part of the commission if it fails to act on behalf of the elderly and press the Housing Department for a more liberal allocation policy. The commission, led by former legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk, should pursue a strategy of zero-tolerance against this discrimination.
Singapore is often admired for its public-housing projects. But many people are unaware that the Singaporean housing policy was originally modelled on that of Hong Kong.
The Singaporeans have emulated us in this regard over the years. We can catch up with Singapore by raising the average space for a tenant from 75 to 107 sq ft.
The younger generation may be able to afford to wait a little longer for better public housing conditions. But time is not on the side of the senior citizens in need. It is bureaucratic inflexibility at its worst for the department to impose a rigid allocation criteria on this special category of tenants and applicants.
The SAR is largely an affluent society. Why can't we provide a little more in resources to solve the problem rather than tolerate discrimination against senior citizens in need of public housing?
The first step is for the Town Planning Board to raise the plot ratios for public housing sites so that more spacious flats can be built.
Housing officials have stressed that the latest units for two to three tenants have been increased to about 237 sq ft. This move should be applauded. The next measure is to get rid of any discriminatory provisions to ensure that one of the most vulnerable sectors of our community is given a fair chance to have a decent living environment in their twilight years.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and former publisher.