Public Housing in Hong Kong: The Challenge of Housing the World’s Most Populated Region

Public Housing in Hong Kong: The Challenge of Housing the World’s Most Populated Region


March 30, 2019



Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated regions of the world, and through a combination of factors including historical patterns, geographic conditions, and public policy is facing severe challenges regarding its supply of public housing. Originating during the post World-War II and evolving throughout the late 20th Century, public housing in Hong Kong has long been a vital resource for the region’s residents as well as an important implementation tool for the government, and at times has been utilized as a means of social engineering. As the demographic of Hong Kong’s residents and labor force has shifted particularly in recent years, the competition and demand for finite public housing opportunities has emphasized the need for an alternative solution to the prevailing typology of high-rise apartment buildings. The design methodology of prefabricated housing have begun to emerge in recent years as a potential innovative typology and building strategy. Although Hong Kong is beginning to investigate and experiment with initial prefabricated developments, uncertainty regarding the efficiency, implementation, or effectiveness in addressing housing shortages and spatial limitations remains, and warrants further consideration and research as the projects proceed.

Hong Kong: An Overview

Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region of China, located at the edge of the Pearl River Delta. An estimated population of 7.4 million inhabitants reside in an area roughly 1,082 square kilometers (1). Divided into three distinct areas – Hong Kong Island to the south, Kowloon and its interim peninsula, and the New Territories to the north –the region also contains a thriving financial center and port, steep hillsides, and both expansive protected green spaces and extensive urban concentrations.

A Brief History of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has long held a unique place in history and global politics. Although the island and its outer lying geographic region had long been considered a territory under China’s domain, Hong Kong’s entrance into the world stage began with British occupation in 1842. The prominence of Hong Kong as a global institution began in earnest with World War II and the subsequent Cultural Revolution in 1949. Catalyzed by Japanese occupation, hundreds of thousands of refugees from China flooded into Hong Kong throughout the war. These war-time numbers were later bolstered by thousands more arriving upon the cusp of the Communist-led revolution in 1949. Constituting an invaluable buffer zone between China and the broader international community, Hong Kong was flooded with refugees escaping political persecution, violence, or displacement. Whether through permitted or illegal immigration, the population of Hong Kong effectively tripled by 1950 – from a low point of 600,000 during the War to around 1.8 million (2) .

The arrival of these migrants throughout the mid to late 20th century has been significant for two reasons: human capital, and limited housing. Contributing valuable knowledge and production to Hong Kong’s industries of consumer manufacturing as well as cheap labor, these arrivals helped spur almost immediate recovery from the war and incredible growth in the volume of exports well into the 1970s: by 1959 the volume of locally-produced exports out of Hong Kong had already risen to seventy percent (a forty percent increase in just six years) (3).

Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, these populations placed an incredible strain upon the local housing stock. Thousands of migrants resided in squatter settlements along the urban area’s periphery, many lacking modern amenities and infrastructure. In 1949, it was estimated that the squatter population was 300,000 (4). These informal settlements were prone to accidents and disasters, none more significant than the Shek Kip Mei settlement fire on Christmas Day, 1953 which rendered 50,0000 homeless (5). This event constituted the final catalyst for the creation of a formal public housing system – a system that has become one of the pivotal players in 21st Century development throughout Hong Kong.

Public Housing in Hong Kong

While the Shek Kip Mei disaster represented only one manifestation of Hong Kong’s housing dilemma, it magnified the inherent deficiencies given the enormity of its scale. Despite the vast improvements to commerce and production of the post-war period, Hong Kong’s housing stock and residential construction had long lagged behind the pace of population growth. In response to the immediate displacement of tens of thousands of residents, the government called for the construction of emergency accommodations which would constitute a prototype for the first public housing efforts in Hong Kong. What resulted from that initial effort was an agglomeration of high-rise apartment buildings dispersed throughout a twenty-nine block area, completed in 1955 with an intended capacity of 50,000 (6. Initial efforts to address the demand for housing placed no great emphasis on either comfort nor aesthetics as a top priority – rather, the primary directive of these early housing complexes were to address public health and safety concerns.

Figure 1. Shek Kip Mei resettlement housing (7). Completed in 1955 and containing twenty-two Mark I ‘H’-configuration apartment buildings surrounded by communal space.

Operating under the promotion of the general welfare, the Hong Kong Redevelopment Authority set about a campaign of squatter clearance coupled with the construction of new public housing, using these first multi-story apartment buildings as a prototype that would continue to be refined in the subsequent years. Its roles and responsibilities would be eventually incorporated into the purview of the Hong Kong Housing Authority, formed in 1954 as the foremost housing agency in the region. Its goals were to provide, manage, and maintain suitable housing and amenities to alleviate dense and sub-standard living conditions through the provision of low-cost housing developments (8). Together with the Hong Kong Housing Society – now the second largest public housing provider in Hong Kong – the two organizations oversee nearly a million units of public housing throughout the region.

The Public Housing Stock

At present, there are three primary classes of housing in Hong Kong: public rental housing units, subsidized sale flats, and private housing. While the latter represent the most common living quarter in the region, the total number of public housing options is nearly equal to that of the entire private housing market, as evident in the following table provided by the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department:


Figure 2. Permanent living quarters by type (9). Out of an estimated 2,785,000 housing units, public housing options constitute approximately 43 percent.

While the private housing market offers a degree of variety in its offerings, from low density villas to multi-story buildings containing condos, public housing is most commonly associated with high density, multi-story apartments partitioned into individual flats. Public rental housing units sold by the Hong Kong Housing Authority are classified as subsidized sale flats and result from a long legacy of providing a means for home-ownership to middle and low-income families. These units include accommodations sold by either the Housing Authority directly, or the Housing Society, and importantly cannot be traded on the open market.

Today, the Housing Authority prepares planning briefs for its real estate investments and also enacts architectural designs for its buildings. Through a competitive tender system, it awards contracts for construction of its property, but retails sole ownership of the land. In the case of the Housing Society, they act as both developer as well as operator of its properties, allowing them to implement a variety of social programs and services in addition to living facilities. Importantly, the Housing Authority is entirely self-regulating and requires no additional oversight by another department or government entity with regards to how they can develop their sites – neither the Planning Department, Buildings Department, or Legislative Council have agency beyond the provision of recommendations (10).

Although the construction of public housing has adhered to several different architectural styles and building forms over the past half century, contemporary Hong Kong public housing complexes share common characteristics like the inclusion of schools, community centers, car parks, open spaces, access to public transportation and shopping facilities.

Figure 3. Prosperous Garden (11). Prosperous Garden has become a quintessential representation of public housing development patterns in one of the world’s densest cities.

Contemporary Challenges

Despite the volume of public and subsidized housing options currently represented in Hong Kong’s housing stock, residents are facing many obstacles and challenges that, in many cases, have not differed significantly in the past hundred years of the region’s history.  

Population Pressures

At the heart of issues surrounding public housing is overpopulation coupled with insufficient supply. The issue of overcrowding is not a recent phenomenon, yet policy and demographic patterns particularly in the past forty years have resulted in a particularly contemporary dire situation.

Immigration and emigration have been closely tied to population shifts in Hong Kong’s urban landscape. Huang attributes Hong Kong’s overpopulation as a direct consequence of the city’s history of involuntary immigration and globalization, despite the sharp emigration that have unfolded since the 1980s – the average annual outflow of Hong Kong residents is estimated to be between 50,000 to 60,000 (12). These outgoing residents have been replaced in full and exceeded by thousands more, whether as a result of global conflicts, drawn at times to Hong Kong’s demand for labor in the construction of its sky scraper network and transportation infrastructure projects, or more recently to satisfy the demands of an increasingly globalized economy.

Collectively, the population of immigrants and natural residents have saturated the housing market, especially as the private housing market remains out of reach for many on account changes in the composition of the labor force and individual purchasing power.

Finite Land Area

One of the fundamental challenges facing Hong Kong is the finite amount of usable land throughout the region. A 2017 survey conducted by the Hong Kong Planning Department found roughly 74.6 percent of total land in Hong Kong unsuitable for future development, with the majority of this percentage consisting of woodland areas concentrated in two primary areas: along the southern hemisphere of Hong Kong Island, and the heart of the New Territories (13). Controversially yet unsurprisingly, the tone towards the sanctity of these natural areas is perhaps beginning to change. The Housing Society initiating last year in 2017 an 18-month study with the intention to gauge the feasibility of developing public housing through country parks encroachment and reclamation (14). This decision has been met by significant derision from both environmental groups as well as elected officials, and it remains to be determined the outcome of this study.

There have been other efforts to increase the amount of usable land through land reclamation, dating back to the 19th Century. On Hong Kong Island, it is estimated that 35 percent of all developable land consists of reclaimed land, including an expansive container port, several railway stations, and for a time Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport (which was replaced in 1998 by the Chek Lap Kok Airport) (15). Despite this fact, there have been no recent suggestions to initiate any additional reclamation projects, largely on account of incredible costs and logistical difficulties.

What little space that remains for urban development is dominated primarily by infrastructure and services that are vital for supporting Hong Kong’s global commerce. Public amenities such as roadways, rail lines, and government institutions occupy 13 percent of available land, and Hong Kong’s entire commercial and retail activity is contained within half a percent of total usable land (an estimated fifty-five square kilometers). All public residential land constitutes but 1.4 percent of total land usage, with private residential (2.3 percent) and rural settlements (3.2 percent) making up the remainder of residential land.

Figure 3. Land Area Analysis. Residential land constitute but a fraction of overall land area –roughly 41 square kilometers in the urban areas, and 35 square kilometers of rural settlements clustered primarily in the New Territories (16).  

Shifting Demographics

At present, the population of Hong Kong is reported as 7,463,500 (17). As the nature of Hong Kong’s major economic activities have shifted in the past half century from a largely manufacturing-base to a greater emphasis on finance and innovative industries, the composition of Hong Kong’s working population has similarly shifted and resulted in a very unique profile of people seeking housing opportunities when compared to prior or even future generations. Two demographic groups are most prominently involved in matters of housing: the working age-population (defined by the Census and Statistics Department residents between ages 15 and 59) and elderly (ages 60 and over). These two groups constitute 65.5 percent and 23.6 percent of the collective population (18).

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Population (total)
0 – 14 804,400 873,700 828,500 847,900 865,900
15 – 59 4,910,900 4,877,700 4,853,400 4,813,700 4,767,900
60+ 1,526,500 1,599,800 1,672,800 1,749,700 1,829,800
0 – 14 11.1% 12.0% 11.3% 11.4% 11.6%
15 – 59 67.8% 66.3% 66.0% 65.0% 63.8%
60+ 21.7% 21.7% 22.7% 23.6% 24.6%
Total Population 7,241,800 7,351,200 7,354,700 7,411,300 7,463,600

Figure 4.  Population and Demographic Change, 2014-2018 (19). Note that the youngest and oldest of Hong Kong’s inhabitants has grown steadily, while working age adults have gradually constituted less of the total population.

Notably, there has been a quantifiable transition especially in the past five years with the elderly population assuming an ever increasing portion of the collective population – an inevitable result of Hong Kong’s ageing population. Consider: in 1999, the elderly population in Hong Kong was 14 percent, yet is estimated to reach 40 percent by 2050 (20).  A 2008 study found that approximately 47 percent of elderly households in Hong Kong were living in public rental housing, and 10 percent in subsidized sales flats (21). The provision of both housing accommodation as well as accessible facilities and amenities for this population will be a crucial exercise for both the Government and the Housing Authority as they consider the prospect of providing living spaces for a population that largely does not contribute productively to the economy.

Towards A Proposed Solution

Prefabricated techniques are several hundred years old, and can be traced back to the inception of the Industrial Revolution where cast-iron molds were used to quickly-produce standardized and modular pieces of building components. Long considered a niche technique of design and building construction, it is now positioned as a low-cost alternative to traditional building techniques, an innovative and efficient process for development wherein individual building components can be produced en mass offsite, and brought on-site for assemblage. Historically, modular construction techniques have emerged as a response to housing shortages, in the 1940s in post-World War II America, and most recently by Google in 2017 (22).

Proposals for Hong Kong

In January 2018, James Law Cybertecture, a Hong Kong-based design studio, offered a glimpse of a model for micro-efficient studio apartments constructed from concrete pipes. This so-called OPOD Tube House is meant as “an experimental, low-cost, micro living unit [designed] to ease Hong Kong’s affordable housing problems,” and consists of a mass-produced concrete water pipe whose interior contains residential furniture designed to accommodate one or two persons (23). Furthermore, these individual ‘pods’ are intended to be stacked atop one another, forming “a low rise building and modular community in  a short time, and can also located to different sites in the city” (24).  Although this project was designed as provocative, its designer James Law believes these structures can take advantage of smaller, oddly-defined parcels of vacant land throughout Hong Kong, and ultimately constitute affordable, short-term starter homes for young people who “can’t afford private housing” (25). 

Law’s concept is not the first proposed design solution using building and material innovation not address specifically public housing demands. Modular housing techniques are beginning to emerge out of the realm of the fantastical and niche-architecture into a viable strategy that Hong Kong appears to be committed to. In March 2018, Henderson Land Development, one of the largest property developers in the entire region, had signed an agreement with the Hong Kong Council of Social Services to develop a new social housing project located in the New Territories oriented around an estimated 80 modular housing units (26). Highlighting the such advantages as an expedited construction phase (estimated at one year to build and complete), opportunities for recycling and sustainable practices (citing a desire to “move these modular units to another site [thereby] saving money and [being] more environmentally friendly”), and representing an “out of the box” proposal to address the demand for public housing, both the developer and the government have thus far publicly expressed great enthusiasm for modular housing’s potential in this capacity (27).

While the aforementioned project is oriented around occupying space in the New Territories, Hong Kong has also been engaged with the implementation of modular housing within the denser urban contexts of both Kowloon and Hong Kong. A low-rise, 90-flat development located in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Poi district was submitted to the Building Department for approval in May 2018, and is intended to serve as a pilot for four subsequent projects (28). This particular project will consist of both one, two, and three-person flats that will feature private amenities, and a brightly-decorated exterior. Distinctively, this particular project will be operated and managed by non-government organizations who will also have agency over the selection of tenants, although officials and representatives of the developer have both expressed the capacity of this project to address those families currently on the waiting lists for public housing – there were an estimated 282,9000 outstanding applications for public housing as of December 2017 (29). The approval process for this particular project will likely be a strong indicator of feasibility and implementation at a broader scale, especially as it relates to the satisfaction of design standards and economies of scale.

Potential Hurdles for Implementation.

Proposing modular housing for public housing purposes will be a peculiar regulatory exercise. Technically, all buildings belonging to the Government are officially exempt from Building Ordinance oversight. Ordinarily, the current bureaucratic structure of Hong Kong’s development agencies funnels all building approvals through the Building Authority for final approval, with the Authority retaining final say on matters of suitable site coverage, open space requirements, density, and other developmental considerations. It will be a unique challenge for regulators, designers, and developers alike to implement a method of prefabricated construction techniques that will not only satisfy contemporary building standards, but also constitute a replicable and efficient process.

Additionally, the success of these initial pilot projects will potentially lead to a broader conversation regarding the placement of such modular housing installations. While main projects the government currently has in development are all based within the urban context of either Hong Kong or Kowloon, the questions remains whether these projects will be financially feasible alternative relative to the exorbitant land values. One may look to the New Territories to offer the better alternative for either implementation at a broader scale or across a more vast land area than a single parcel or block. Although the proliferation of land may constitute an ample host for a new building typology however, the fact remains that the density demands in the New Territories are presently nonexistent, and there has be no indication that anyone is suggestion a prefabricated housing development for this region as an alternative to the more familiar high-rise apartment building typology.


Where then do proposals for modular housing leave the public housing crisis facing Hong Kong? The challenges faced by the Government, the Housing Authority, and other interested parties will continue to persist, as growing demand and an increasingly income-disparate population will require living accommodations regardless of spatial limitations. Although Hong Kong has had the benefit of the past several decades to build up its housing stock and implement improvements upon its methodology, design, and social considerations, it remains embroiled in contemporary concerns of affordability, accessibility, and conflict regarding equity.

Emerging out of its colonial status, Hong Kong has on one hand benefited handsomely from its unique geographic and political capacity, today serving as a convergence point of commerce, industry, and finance. These advantages have manifested in a diverse and mobile population, whose contributions to labor, industry, and business have served to push Hong Kong to a position of global prominence. And yet, as a region and uniquely positioned political entity, Hong Kong has also been susceptible to matters of overcrowding, densification, and as I have described, shortages in the provision of public housing alternatives. Modular housing may potentially provide an alleviation to the issues, but its effectiveness and viability will likely take another decade to manifest in earnest.


Jeremy Pi is a Master in Urban Planning Candidate the Harvard Graduate School of Design.


  1. Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. “Population Overview.” (accessed October 20, 2018)
  2. Drakakis-Smith. David. High Society. 28.
  3. Carrol, John M. A Concise History of Hong Kong. 144.
  4. Drakakis-Smith. 39.
  5. Lai, Lawrence C. “The Property Price Crisis.” In The Other Hong Kong Report 1994. 191.
  6. Drakkis-Smith. 91.
  7. Cameron. 283.
  8. Sun, York Sui. “The Evolution of Public Housing in Hong Kong.” 101.
  9. Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. Hong Kong in Figures 2018 Edition. 24.
  10. Lai, Lawrence. Change in Land Use. 53.
  11. Hong Kong Housing Society. “Prosperous Gardens.” Accessed December 11, 2018.
  12. Huang. 24.
  13. Hong Kong Planning Department. “Land Utilization in Hong Kong 2017.” (accessed October 20, 2018).
  14. Ng, Naomi. “Hong Kong pushes on with controversial proposal to build housing on fringes of country parks.” South China Morning Post. May 17, 2017.
  15. Ibid. 3.
  16. Hong Kong Planning Department. “Land Utilization in Hong Kong 2017.” (accessed October 20, 2018).
  17. Hong Kong in Figures 2018 Edition. 2.
  18. Ibid. 12.
  19. Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. Hong Kong in Figures. February 2018. 4.
  20. Cheung, Fanny. “Ageing Population and Gender Issues.” 207.
  21. Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. Study on Impact of Taxation and Social Benefits on Household Income, 2008. 45.
  22. Kusisto, Laura. “Google Will Buy Modular Homes to Address Housing Crunch.” The Wall Street Journal. June 14, 2017.
  23. Cybertecture Architects. OPOD Tube House. (access December 10, 2018).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Block, India. “Micro apartments in concrete pipes designed to ease Hong Kong’s housing crisis.” dezeen. January 16, 2018.
  26. Ng, Naomi. “Prefabricated social housing for Hong Kong’s needy may be completed by next September.” South Chiang Morning Post. March 25, 2018.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ng, Naomi. “New social housing in Hong Kong will be modern, airy and all colours of the rainbow, Anthony Wong tells Sham Shui Po District Council.” South China Morning Post. May 8, 2018.
  29. Nip, Amy. “Prefab housing ‘bright and vibrant.’ The Standard. May 9, 2018.



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