Hong Kong Displacement Study

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Executive Summary

Hong Kong, with its history as a colony, of occupation, rapid economic growth, and divergence from traditional statehood, presents a unique challenge in how to interpret the past to make sense of the present and anticipate the future. Two dominant perspectives—the colonial and Marxist—have long shaped the telling of Hong Kong’s history but there is a growing body of research, focused on the complex social and political dynamics of Hong Kong. This research complicates mainstream narratives of growth and progress, and centers the perspectives and lived experiences of Hong Kongers, provoking new and surprising insights. 

This report aims to contribute to that emerging literature by problematizing overly simplistic narratives and offering new understandings of housing, development, and displacement in Hong Kong.

Research Questions

Our primary research questions are as follows:

  • What are the unique processes of neighborhood change which have occurred in Hong Kong since 2001? 
  • To what extent is redevelopment a driver of neighborhood change in the region? 
  • How and why do residents and community activists choose to resist redevelopment projects? 

Within the above questions, we placed particular focus on the role and actions of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA). The URA conducts large-scale redevelopment within Hong Kong, demolishing older buildings and replacing them with newer units. The URA has been well-received by much of the general public for its improvement of physical conditions and quality of life for many people within Hong Kong. However, it has also seen criticism for its significant focus on financial profit and the social and cultural impacts its projects have had on communities.

Outline

This report starts with an in-depth review of literature regarding Hong Kong’s history, housing market, transportation planning, and gentrification and displacement. Next, we conducted interviews with relevant stakeholders in Hong Kong, including professors, planners, and members of community groups. To complement our interviews, we also conducted quantitative work by using census data and other data sources to map neighborhood change over time in Hong Kong. This included an adaptation of the Urban Displacement Project’s (UDP) displacement and exclusion typologies for the Hong Kong context. We selected two neighborhoods—Sham Shui Po and To Kwa Wan—as case studies for an in-depth look at the impact of URA projects. They provide a useful contrast as they are both historically low-income, home to ongoing URA projects and experiencing neighborhood change but have seen different types of resistance to redevelopment. A new MTR station is also expected to be completed in To Kwa Wan in 2021. The final two sections include our policy recommendations for the Hong Kong government, the URA, and various quasi-governmental agencies, as well as our key takeaways, and limitations and potential extensions of our research.

Key Findings

Throughout our research, we found a number of catalysts for neighborhood change in Hong Kong. These included foreign speculation in the real estate market, private development, constrained supply and rising housing prices due to the narrative of land scarcity, real and perceived.

However, the URA’s developments consistently arose as one of the most distinctive causes of neighborhood change in Hong Kong. Although the organization’s projects often help improve physical conditions within the city, significant populations are also directly or indirectly displaced. Crucially, that displacement includes not only physical displacement, but also cultural displacement for even those who are not forced to relocate. The burdens are particularly notable for ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, and those without formal documentation.

We garnered specific insights from our region-wide typologies and case studies that point to two different but related trends. Our quantitative analysis showed that with a growing percentage of sole tenants and private permanent housing in Hong Kong from 2001 to 2016, the displacement pressures are largely concentrated in and around Kowloon City, while exclusionary areas are dispersed throughout the entire region. Our case studies also specifically show how URA development is impacting thousands of residents in both Sham Shui Po and To Kwa Wan, as well as the steps residents and community organizations are taking to resist individual projects. 

We believe that the magnitude of the displacement caused by URA projects could be mitigated through a variety of means. These include:

  • Amending the Urban Renewal Strategy (URS) to have a stricter definition of the Authority’s obligations to residents in a redevelopment area before, during, and after the project. 
  • Better informing existing residents of their rights, and consistently providing translation services for those who do not speak English or Cantonese.
  • Engaging with community groups ahead of selecting development sites.
  • Standardizing the relocation process for existing residents.
  • Loosening relocation requirements to accommodate those who live in subdivided flats, are nonresidents, or have limited documentation.
  • Encouraging the URA to develop more sites in the New Territories, rather than exclusively in Kowloon City and on Hong Kong Island.
  • Re-introducing rent control, perhaps in a limited capacity, in those areas slated for redevelopment, to preempt rent hikes and forced evictions.
Final Thoughts

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, our research team was unable to conduct field work in Hong Kong. We hope that future researchers are able to build on our work in the coming months or years through more thorough collection of observational data, extensive field interviews, and analysis of newly available secondary data.