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STH's speech at the International Housing Conference 2010 (English only)(with photos)

     Following is the speech by the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Ms Eva Cheng, at the International Housing Conference 2010 organised by the Singapore Housing and Development Board today (January 28):

Mr (James) Koh, Mr Tay (Kim Poh), Mr (David) Borger, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     Good morning. It is my great pleasure to be here today to celebrate with you the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Housing and Development Board, and to wish the Board to go from strength to strength based on the solid foundations laid over the past 50 years.

     Like Singapore, Hong Kong is an international city with an evolving public housing programme that takes care of the housing needs of a considerable proportion of our population.  Hong Kong has a population of some 7 million, living within a small geographical area of about 1,100 square kilometres. Because of our hilly terrain, only about 20% can be used for development.  The rest has been earmarked as country parks or is unsuitable for housing.  Hong Kong therefore has one of the highest population densities in the world.  Housing development has always been a daunting task for us.

     Hong Kong's public housing programme has a history going back more than half a century. It started as an emergency housing measure for people who were rendered homeless by a horrible fire which swept through a squatter area on Christmas night 1953. But over the years, as our public housing programme evolves, we have moved on from providing mere shelters to a quality living environment for people in need.  

     Nowadays, our public housing programme is a cornerstone of our social policy and a key factor contributing to the stability of society. Through our public housing programme, we strive to meet the housing needs of low-income families who cannot afford private housing. Our public rental housing provides home to about 2 million people or 670,000 families, that is about one-third of Hong Kong¡¦s population. It has enabled successive generations of Hong Kong people to grow and prosper and achieve upward social mobility.

     As the Secretary for Transport and Housing of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, I am responsible for overseeing public housing policy in Hong Kong. I also wear the hat of the Chairman of the Hong Kong Housing Authority, Hong Kong's statutory authority that takes charge of our public housing programme.

     For our public housing policy, one of the most important pledges is to maintain the average waiting time for public housing at around three years. To honour this pledge, we need to put in place a fairly ambitious programme. Apart from the usual turnover, we need to complete on average some 15,000 public housing units each year in the next five years. To ensure that valuable public housing resources are available to those in the real need, we have set income and asset limits for applicants. For example, for a three-person family, in order to be eligible for a public housing unit, their monthly household income should not exceed HKD$13,000, that is about USD$1,700, and their household asset value should not exceed HKD$332,000, that is about USD$43,000. 70% of our tenants now pay a monthly rent below HKD$1,500, that is less than USD$200. Considering that our salaries tax rate is only 17% maximum and less than 2% of our taxpayers contribute to 50% of the salaries tax proceeds, we are pretty proud of what we have achieved¡Vbasic housing needs of 2 million people are adequately met.  The housing needs of the remaining of the population rest entirely with the private market which takes up some 55% of the total units. So Hong Kong, though in many ways is like Singapore, our public housing policy stems from a very different philosophy.

     Given the scarcity of land resources in Hong Kong, we cannot solely rely on the supply of new flats. Existing flats returned by tenants leaving our estates is another major source of supply. However, almost half of our housing inventory will cross the 30-year mark in the coming decade.  So, maintenance of a sustainable housing stock and continuous improvement of older estates have been high on the Housing Authority¡¦s agenda.

     Altogether we have about 700,000 public rental housing units in about 200 estates. This is, by any definition, a very huge inventory. We have a series of maintenance, improvement and revitalisation programmes to lengthen the useful life of our public housing units and cater for the changing needs of our residents in a systematic and people-oriented manner.

     The backbone of our maintenance programme is the Total Maintenance Scheme, which takes a proactive approach to maintenance. Rather than reacting to complaints or enquiries, we send Inspection Ambassadors to proactively identify maintenance problems in the flats. The work is supported by a computerised system, which facilitates the build-up of a database of individual flats' maintenance history, more or less like our medical record, and enables the Inspection Ambassadors to access maintenance records instantly through PDAs. The ambassadors carry out minor repairs on the spot and immediately issue work orders for more serious problems. We also provide a maintenance hotline for residents to make enquiries and arrange for inspection appointments.

     Since the inception of the Total Maintenance Scheme in 2006, the ambassadors have serviced some 280,000 flats in almost 140 estates. As our customer satisfaction survey reveals, the scheme is well received. Nearly 90% of the households were satisfied with our home visit arrangements and proactive provision of inspection and maintenance services. So successful is the scheme that we have known cases where the lady tenant left her key with our ambassador and went off playing mahjong and did not return until the minor works were finished.

     The Total Maintenance Scheme works in concert with the maintenance and improvement programmes of individual estates, which regularly upgrade the living environment and facilities in housing estates. The areas of improvement include water supply systems, pedestrian access, electrical rewiring, external drainage inspection and provision of free Wi-Fi services.

     On the structural side, we have adopted the Comprehensive Structural Investigation Programme that targets those housing estates approaching 40 years old. The programme aims to ascertain whether these aged blocks are structurally safe, and whether it will be cost-effective to keep these buildings through repair and structural strengthening works. The programme has proven to be a valuable tool for considering the way forward for these older buildings, scheduling total redevelopment or revitalisation works for our estates, and identifying the extent of repair and strengthening works required to sustain them.

     What's next after the comprehensive review? For estates that can be retained in a cost-effective manner, we revitalise and rejuvenate them. There is a lot we can do to bring the provisions and amenities closer to the standard of new estates, including redecoration of common areas, adding green roofs, providing lifts and escalators, and even converting space in estate common areas to other community use.

     Yesterday I have learnt with much interest the strategies, future concepts and planning visions from the various distinguished speakers. Today, I would like to go beyond the strategies and policies and talk about two important people organizations. Revitalisation goes beyond the physical renewal of buildings and structures. In revitalising our property, we firmly believe that we must put people first.  Efforts of the Housing Authority alone are not enough. The local community plays a pivotal role in the process. We actively engage them throughout the planning, design and implementation stages of revitalisation projects.  In this regard, I would like to highlight how we work closely with the Estate Management Advisory Committees and Non-Government Organisations, or NGOs, in maintaining a sustainable housing stock.

     To us, estate management is never a "top-down" process. It requires collaborative efforts between the stakeholders and the Housing Authority. We have an institutionalised channel, the Estate Management Advisory Committees, or EMACs in short, to engage our tenants and the local community. In 1995, we experimented with the establishment of EMACs in eight public housing estates, to enable residents to participate more directly in estate management affairs, and to further improve the quality of management and living conditions. It was a successful experiment and has been rolled out to all public housing estates.

     Let me explain how EMACs work. EMACs are formed with our Housing Managers as their chairmen, and their members mainly include resident representatives and members of the local District Council. Regular meetings are held to discuss estate affairs. Resident representatives can raise problems ranging from security, hygiene and recreational facilities to various issues about improving the living environment. Where necessary, representatives from the Housing Department, other government departments and serving contractors are invited to attend their meetings, so that a more thorough discussion can be conducted and effective solutions to problems be found.

     One of the important functions of EMACs is that they can make suggestions about areas and priorities for maintenance and improvement works in their estate. EMACs can also comment on the performance of contractors serving the estate. So, they play a monitoring role on the quality of service. As a matter of fact, EMACs' assessment constitutes up to 20% of the overall assessment of the performance of service contractors.

     The establishment of EMACs has brought the engagement of residents and the local community to an entirely new plane. EMACs actively contribute to the process of the revitalisation schemes I have just described. They are consulted on the timing and arrangements of the Total Maintenance Scheme and members also serve as a bridge in the communication between the tenants and the authority.

     EMACs are also involved in the decision-making process with respect to the design and other details of the revitalisation and improvement works. We engage the EMACs and also other parties in deciding the theme, scope and details of the works, according to the needs and demographics of the tenants.  They help choose the theme for revitalisation. For example, one estate set the theme of ¡§Healthy Estate¡¨ taking into account EMACs' advice. We have carried out some of the improvement works along this theme, including the construction of a fitness trail along the hillside. EMACs are also consulted on the colour scheme of building facades, landscaping, addition of lifts and escalators, provision of facilities for the elderly, and details such as the number and look of chairs to be erected in public sitting out areas. Being a tenants¡¦ representative and a tenant themselves, the EMAC members are indeed best placed to offer practical advice on these matters.  

     Not only do they play an advisory role, they also carry out minor improvement and maintenance works. To facilitate the work of EMACs, we allocate funds to them annually. For a typical estate with 5,000 flats, the annual funds made available for an EMAC are HKD$500,000, or USD$64,000. The funds can be used for local minor improvement and maintenance.  

     EMACs have enhanced the participation of residents and the local community in the management and revitalisation of public housing estates. As a result, facilities in the estates better suit residents¡¦ needs and promote social interaction. And as residents have the chance to participate directly in improving their own living environment, they naturally develop a stronger sense of belonging towards the estates.

     On top of EMACs, the Housing Authority also collaborates with local non-government organisations in taking forward revitalisation plans. Local NGOs play a pivotal role in identifying and meeting social service needs of tenants. They provide a wide spectrum of services to our tenants, including education, child-care, youth development, elderly and other community services in our housing estates.  

     Almost all of our estates are served by NGOs. Some of them started operation as early as the opening of the estates while some were only introduced later. When developing a new estate, we invite the Social Welfare Department, another close working partner, to consider the need of providing welfare premises at these new estates to serve the tenants and also the nearby neighbourhood. We accommodate these welfare facilities in our estates as far as practicable with a view to providing complementary social service in a quality living environment for our tenants. To support these NGOs¡¦ work, the rent for NGOs operating in our premises are either waived or substantially reduced.

     There are also cases where we join hands with NGOs to convert suitable under-utilised space into welfare facilities, so as to provide a broader spectrum of social services to the community. A case in point is that we are in the process of converting an open car park in a remote new town with a gross floor area of 9,500 square metres into a six-storey Amenities and Community Building.  

     NGOs have well-established working base and excellent networks in the community, and provide a wide range of social services to our tenants. The Government can do a lot of things but sometimes services are better delivered by NGOs. Through their close relationship with their clients, they are familiar with the local situation and have a thorough understanding of local needs. Their strong connection with local organisations as well as an enthusiastic team of volunteers make them our very resourceful partners.

     When it comes to revitalisation of our estates, we have actively engaged the NGOs in mapping out the scope and priorities of our work. With their rich experience in serving the tenants and in particular the needy groups, they are in good position to give us advice as to how we should prioritise the works to help those most in need and groups that may be neglected.  Apart from general advice, the NGOs can also reflect specific requests from their clients on home improvement and alteration works to cater for the needs of the elderly and wheel-chair users.

     Based on the long-standing partnership between EMACs, NGOs and ourselves, the Housing Authority has decided last year to institutionalise the collaboration between EMACs and NGOs. EMACs possess extensive neighbourhood networks and are well trusted by tenants, while NGOs have rich experience in community building through their well established networks.  Seeing room for closer cooperation, we have put in place arrangements like streamlining of EMAC funding to encourage partnering between EMACs and NGOs. With the funding support from EMACs, NGOs can organise activities to promote community building as well as facilitate the smooth implementation of our revitalisation and improvement plans. In fact, estate revitalisation presents unique opportunities for local NGOs to fill any service gaps and enhance their services.

     In closing, let me illustrate the people-based revitalisation strategy of the Housing Authority using one of the oldest estates, the Ping Shek Estate, as an example. Built in the 1970s, the Ping Shek Estate provides home to 12,000 people of various age groups. In 2008, we conducted a comprehensive structural investigation for the estate and concluded that it should be retained.

     We then proceed with the revitalisation. We proactively engaged EMACs and NGOs in deciding the scope and priorities of the revitalisation works. With their very constructive advice, we came up with the theme of the project, which was to foster community bonding among tenants of different age groups. Under this theme, we will provide a covered stage for holding community functions, barrier-free access linking the entire estate, and a multi-purpose activity centre where tenants can get together and join activities such as health talks and Chinese herbalist consultations run by charitable organisations. We will also enlist the support of NGOs and other agencies in the district in identifying further opportunities to provide multi-faceted community services that would meet the needs of tenants of different ages. We plan to invest HKD$135 million, or USD$17.3 million in the project, and commence works in early 2011.

     This particular example illustrates how EMACs and local NGOs have formed the foundation of the community network in public housing estates and proven themselves to be our important partners in bringing the revitalisation plans to fruition. These two people-oriented organisations have certainly helped us in delivering a sustainable housing programme and quality living for our tenants.

     Sustainable housing is more than a bricks and mortar job. "People" will always take priority in the public housing policy of Hong Kong. On this note, I wish to thank the HDB for this very meaningful conference, whichever stage we are, whatever policy objectives our housing programme serve, afterall, it is for the benefit of our people.

     Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, January 28, 2010
Issued at HKT 21:23


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