Seniority Issues

Hong Kong’s elderly population is set to skyrocket in the coming years, yet the supply of luxury housing for this market is far from sufficient

Old age homes are very often associated with gloom but that may not be the case for retired civil engineer Patrick Lo, father of two sons in their 30s. An apartment that comes with room service and emergency systems for the aged is definitely at the top of his wish list. A five-star clubhouse with indoor pool, spacious gym designed for seniors and a polyclinic providing all-in-one medical checks, dental and Chinese medical care wouldn’t be bad either, he says.

“I don’t mind paying more for better, if there are any,” says the 60-year-old pensioner, who has been desperately seeking a haven for his post-retirement life. “Facilities in my housing estate are not good enough for the aged. There just aren’t many choices.”

Lo is obviously not alone, especially among the more economically well off. By 2039 33 percent of Hongkongers, one in every three, will be aged over 60 according to the Census and Statistics Department. The housing issue arising from an aging population is definitely a front burner one, if the government has the vision and drive to address it.

Despite Hong Kong’s booming and bubbling property market, it would seem the Big Daddies in town are less than enthusiastic about high-end housing developments for the elderly. While a spokesperson for Cheung Kong Holdings said luxury elderly housing is “not on our plans,” leading developers, including Henderson Land, had no comments on the issue. Sun Hung Kai Properties did not reply to requests for comment.

The only notable exception was Swire Properties and its announcement earlier this year that it would be building a 28-storey luxury seniors’ residence with a gross floor area of about 300,000 square feet, providing some 300 flats with recreational and medical facilities in Pok Fu Lam. Project details are yet to be revealed, but Swire could confirm that the land exchange application is currently being processed by the Lands Department.

High-end elderly housing is not a new concept in Canada, Australia, the UK and the United States. Five-star suites and services ranging from on-site practitioners, upscale food to fitness facilities catering to affluent elderly are easily found in each of those countries, mostly from private initiatives — as long as you can afford to pay.

The deep-rooted tradition of seniors living with adult children obviously has an influence on the lack of development of elderly housing in Hong Kong. But with so many of those children living overseas that dynamic is set to change too. The government discontinued most housing plans catering the needs of retirees beyond the welfare net in 2002. The Home Ownership Scheme and Flat-forsale scheme — mostly targeting sandwich class housing — all came to a halt when the government prioritised diversifying resources for lower-income groups.

Four years ago Chief Executive Donald Tsang in his Policy Address highlighted the need to provide elderly housing on a “user pays” principle. Yet such a responsibility still very much lies in hands of the non-profit, self-financing Hong Kong Housing Society, a pioneer that has undertaken several upmarket elderly housing projects under the Senior Citizen Residences (SEN) Scheme.

These projects were part of the Housing Society’s goal to “improve accommodation that meets the requirements of the elderly across the economic spectrum.” They were, however, far from enough to satisfy market demand.

Statistics show the Housing Society’s 576 flats at Jolly Place in Tseung Kwan O and Cheerful Court in Jordan Valley, built between 2003 and 2004, have been fully occupied since completion and have long waiting lists. Jolly Place, the society’s first retirement project, was two times oversubscribed. “I wish I were on the waiting list, too,” Lo said. “I was not yet 60 at that time, but people often plan ahead for their retired life, right?”

Those two projects offer housing for middle-to upper class seniors over 60, and one-stop services ranging from foot messages, laundry and counselling to health care service ward-round by geriatric doctors and 24-hour nursing service. To quality as a tenant, one has to pay a lump sum of $300,000 to $600,000 and be a bona fide “millionaire,” owning assets of at least $1 million, and $1.5 million for couples.

It is also questionable if the 1,500 flats supplied by Housing Society’s two recent projects — Tanner Hill in North Point and less urban Tin Shui Wai — will meet public demand. These two projects will be completed in 2014, when almost one-quarter of the city’s population could be considered elderly.

A 2008 report commissioned by privately funded public policy think tank Bauhinia Foundation concluded elderly housing unfortunately, “does not feature in the city’s master zoning plans.” Hong Kong has neither land designated for such use nor relevant policy and mechanisms that easily allow for alternatives to that lump sum lease. “Our aging population is a fact and an issue looming not far on the horizon. Planning of land use should thus reflect this demographic change,” the Foundation said.

Housing Society Chairman Yeung Ka-sing agreed, pointing out the SAR’s lack of clear policy in response to the city’s aging population and provision for elderly housing. Initiatives from private developers should be encouraged in the long run, he said. “If [the] government so wishes,” the Foundation also said, “It could also invite private developers to bid for such sites with appropriate incentives such as density bonus.”

Lo is now looking out for new options — he’s ready to line up for the luxury project in Tanner Hill, which will include a wine cellar and fine dining outlets. “The Tin Sui Wai resort is too far away from my sons’ homes in the urban area. I hope the Tanner Hill project will be completed before I’m too old to move in.”