The Hong Kong government plans to greatly increase the scale of public housing projects in a bid to soothe widespread discontent after four months of anti-government protests.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a raft of moves to ease the city’s drastic shortage of cheap housing in a video address on Wednesday, after she was forced to abandon her annual policy speech in the Legislative Council because she was heckled by rival lawmakers.

Many analysts have blamed the city’s expensive housing costs – some of the highest in the world – as a key reason why young Hong Kongers are disenchanted with the Chinese-led government and have taken to the streets to stage large and frequent protests.

“I hereby set a clear objective that every Hong Kong citizen and his family will no longer have to be troubled by or preoccupied with the housing problem, and that they will be able to have their own home in Hong Kong,” the embattled city leader said.

‘Toughest issue’

Lam said housing was the “toughest” livelihood issue and “a source of public grievances” – so about 700 hectares of private land in the New Territories would be taken for public use under a land resumption ordinance.

More than half of that area would be used for housing projects over the next few years, she said, with a further 450 hectares earmarked for government seizure at a later date.

Lam also announced a range of measures to help low-income households and the middle class citizens to buy their own homes.

One key policy, to be undertaken with HK$5 billion of new funding, is to build 10,000 homes in the next three years for those on the waiting list for public housing.

Meanwhile, the government-backed Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation will relax the ceiling of mortgage financing schemes for first-home buyers.

Land hoarders

There has been strong support from pro-Beijing politicians and state media for the Hong Kong administration to invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance more energetically to boost the supply of land for cheaper housing, with some calling for Lam to “get tough with developers” hoarding land for personal gain.

Lam said 450 hectares of land near new towns or main roads like Ping Shan in Yuen Long and Lam Tei in Tuen Mun would be seized, along with land already zoned for public housing, plus three urban villages – Ngau Chi Wan, Cha Kwo Ling and Chuk Yuen United Village.

The government has said major developers are sitting on at least 1,000 hectares of agricultural land.

Lam admitted previously that the protests plaguing her administration go much deeper than the extradition bill, which has now been shelved. She said in September those issues include “problems relating to housing and land supply, income distribution, social justice and mobility, and opportunities for our young people, as well as how the public could be fully engaged in the government’s decision-making”.

Hearts and minds

The speech by Carrie Lam was billed as a bid to win hearts and minds after four months of seething pro-democracy protests. But it also laid bare the intense polarization in the semi-autonomous financial hub after weeks of increasingly violent rallies.

Lam, who has historic low approval ratings, tried twice to begin her policy address in the Legislative Council, which had opened for a new session some three months after it was trashed by masked protesters.

But pro-democracy lawmakers, a minority in the pro-Beijing stacked legislature, shouted her down. One used a projector to broadcast protest slogans behind Lam as she stood on the podium, and later donned a face mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Lam instead released a pre-recorded video, the first time a Hong Kong leader has been unable to deliver the annual address in person since the tradition began in 1948.

“I firmly believe that Hong Kong will be able to ride out this storm and move on,” she said. But her announcement gave no concessions to protesters and was quickly dismissed by pro-democracy advocates.

Mixed reactions

“So much has happened on Hong Kong’s streets over the past four months, but Lam has been either hiding in her abyss or acting like a wax figure,” pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan told reporters.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip criticized her opponents for forcing Lam from the podium. “I think that my pan-democrat colleagues insulting, screaming, jumping onto the desk to prevent the Chief Executive from delivering the policy address is shameful and should be condemned,” she said.

Willy Lam, a politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Lam’s speech would do little to quell protests which are fueled by years of anger over sliding freedoms and the inability of Hong Kongers to elect their own leaders.

“Carrie Lam is following instructions from Beijing,” he said. “Even the economic handouts do not seem to be particularly impressive and they will take a few years to actually materialize.”

Millions have taken to the streets of Hong Kong, initially against a now-dropped bid by its leaders to allow extraditions to the authoritarian Chinese mainland.

But after Beijing and Lam took a hardline the movement snowballed into a broader push for democracy and police accountability. Activists say freedoms are being eroded by Beijing, contrary to a deal that outlined Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China from British colonial rule.

Protesters have said they will only end their huge rallies if core demands are met, including an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for the more than 2,500 people arrested and universal suffrage.

Both Lam and Beijing have repeatedly dismissed those demands and say Hong Kong’s freedoms are being protected.

Lam’s speech comes after the US House of Representatives passed a bill late Tuesday that aims to defend civil rights in Hong Kong and has drawn rare bipartisan support in a polarized Congress.

China, which has accused “external forces” of fueling weeks of unrest in the city, expressed its “strong indignation” over the bill and told Washington to “stop meddling.”

The Hong Kong Rights and Democracy Act would link the city’s special trading status with the United States to an annual State Department certification that authorities are respecting human rights and the rule of law.

It would also require the US president to identify and sanction the people responsible for the erosion of autonomy and serious abuses of human rights in Hong Kong. The House also approved a related bill to prohibit the export of certain non-lethal crowd control items such as tear gas to Hong Kong.

– with reporting by AFP