Unaffordable Housing in Hong Kong

For the past six years, Hugh Pavletich of Performance Urban Planning (Christchurch, New Zealand) and I have authored the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. The Survey assesses structural housing affordability by the use of the Median Multiple (median house price divided by the median household income). This measure is in wide use and has been recommended by the United Nations and the World Bank.

Six nations are routinely covered, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. In each of these nations, the Median Multiple has been astonishingly similar, at least until recent years, with all six nations having had a Median Multiple of 3.0 or less until the last decade, or at the worst, the late 1980s. Of course, as Demographia and a world-class collection of economists have shown, house prices have risen substantially relative to incomes as a result of growth management (also called smart growth, urban consolidation) that ration land for development.

For the first four years of the Survey, California markets were the most unaffordable, with Los Angeles exceeding 11 at one point, while San Francisco, Honolulu and San Diego exceeded 10. That all changed with the US housing bust, which was the most severe in California. As a result, Vancouver has become the most unaffordable major metropolitan area in the six nations, with a Median Multiple of 9.3 in the 2010 Survey. Sydney was a close second at 9.3.

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English language newspaper, approached Demographia to estimate a Median Multiple for Hong Kong. This we were pleased to comply, given our interest in expanding the scope of the Survey to more than the six nations.

It took a considerable amount of "digging" to develop the data, and a number of emails back and forth with The South China Morning Post. The result was an estimated Median Multiple for Hong Kong (the entire Special Economic Region) of 10.4. This makes Hong Kong the least affordable metropolitan area of the 273 Demographia has reported upon. The South China Morning Post illustrated this in an attractive graphic.

At least temporarily, however, home purchasers in Hong Kong have been able to arrange financing packages that mute these high costs. Currently, mortgage interest rates are from 0.8% to 2.1%, which is far below the lowest levels reached in the six nations. As a result, such homeowners find their housing more affordable that some metropolitan areas with higher Median Multiples (such as Vancouver and Sydney).

However, things could soon change. Professor Chau Kwong-wing of the University of Hong Kong calls the present situation: "... just a short-term illusion," adding that "People think they can afford an expensive flat with a reasonably cheap mortgage. Their dreams will burst and the flat will become unaffordable when the interest rate rises." The professor has a point. Variations in interest rates can mask or magnify structural affordability, which is measured by the Median Multiple. This is because interest rates are subject to fluctuation, while buyers and sellers do not renegotiate sales prices after the deal is concluded.

Professor Chau echoed the land regulation views of the economists, indicating that the need for "increasing land supply for sales."

We look forward to routinely reporting on Hong Kong in future editions of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

Hong Kong has grown fast in recent decades, not only in population but also in income. International Monetary Fund placed Hong Kong's 2009 gross domestic product per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) only 10% below that of the United States, and 15% above its former colonial administrator, the United Kingdom. Hong Kong was even further ahead of other major European Union nations and Japan.

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