Our group had a few conversations throughout the trip about Hong Kong’s famously tiny, sky-high and dense living spaces. As we rode out to the New Territories to visit the Ching Ho Public Housing Estate, mesmerized by the sight of tower after enormous residential tower whizzing by on the skyline so foreign to our own Western living experiences, it occurred to me to consider our lens in reverse. What percentage of Hong Kong’s population, I wondered, has ever set foot inside a single family home?
One answer to this question popped up later in our meeting with Stefan Krummeck, at the Hong Kong office of Terry Farrell & Partners, a global architecture firm. There is a highly coveted crop of single family homes, Krummeck told us, located in Hong Kong’s New Territories. This exception to Hong Kong’s high-density rule owes its existence to a government provision from the early 1970s, called the Small House Policy.
The policy, enacted in 1972 as a concession to indigenous families who lost their land when the British claimed control of the New Territories in 1898, awards qualifying male descendants of these original families the right to build a “small house” in his original village within his lifetime. The policy grants building permits that are otherwise difficult to obtain; villagers build either on private (leased) land, which is easier and more valuable, or wait in line for a land grant from the government. These homes can be up to three stories high, with a footprint no bigger than 700 SF per floor.
Unlike the Housing Authority’s “homeownership scheme,” which prevents owners of government-subsidized housing from selling their units, the Small House Policy allows the indigenous owners to sell their homes to any buyer (there are some penalty fees in place to hamper speculation, but they are not high enough to discourage those determined to sell). With land in such extremely short supply, these well-situated, spacious homes are a rare find, and now command a dizzying premium … particularly, Krummeck mentioned, among Western ex-patriots who seek the comforts of their home country in a setting where this kind of development almost never happens.
This New York Times article, published last April, profiles one luxurious small house and the American/Scottish couple who owns it and lives in it with their two children and four dogs. The couple purchased their home for $1.3 million (US dollars) in 1999; brokers ballparked the current market value between $40 and $50 million.
In some areas, developers have been able to assemble several plots and small house building permits, building small communities of detached homes.
At least 30,000 of these homes have been built in the New Territories. I found reports online indicating that thousands more permit applications have been filed and are waiting to be filled. Generations later, the descendants of the indigenous inhabitants are far more numerous than the original population.
The New York Times article and other accounts available online indicate that the future of the Small House Policy is a controversial issue in Hong Kong. It seems logical to conclude that the policy is inherently unsustainable, given the ever-growing demand for property and these coveted detached homes and the scarcity of available land.
Links for further reading:
The New York Times: A Village Getaway from Busy Hong Kong
China Daily: Small House Policy Needs Revision
Hong Kong Lands Dept: How to Apply for a Small House Grant
HKU Theses Online: Evaluation of the Small House Policy in Hong Kong