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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Land Policy Not Living Up to Ideal

HONG KONG -- Gender and pedigree might not be all it takes to get ahead in the world these days. But they're all it takes to get a piece of one of the most precious commodities in Hong Kong: land.

Any adult male who proves that he is descended from the aboriginal dwellers of the outlying New Territories may apply to the government for his own patch of land on which to build a home.

The aim of the 1972 policy was to help preserve the residency rights and unique culture of the area's indigenous people - villagers whose ancestral holdings were snatched away by the British soon after Hong Kong became a crown colony in the 19th century.

But the land-grant program - known as the "small-houses" policy - has come under fire from critics who decry its sexism and say it has turned into little more than a moneymaking scheme for native sons to claim property, build houses and then rent or sell them to waiting homeowners and developers. In Hong Kong's overheated real estate market, that can mean a small fortune.

So far, 24,000 such houses have been erected in the New Territories, a 910-square-kilometer swath of often virgin land north of this city's famous downtown skyline. In addition, 9,223 applications for land grants were pending at the end of last year, according to government statistics.

The houses occupy a maximum of 63 square meters of land and are up to three stories high. Each house can boast as much as 189 square meters of floor space - an incredible amount in Hong Kong, where whole families live in apartments less than a quarter that size.

Mal Paylor, a transplanted Englishman, and his wife moved into their apartment in the village of Clear Water Bay five years ago. One floor above lives a Belgian tenant; below is a fellow Briton.

That scenario is repeated throughout villages in the New Territories.

So many of the homes have been rented or sold to nonindigenous residents that the trend defeats the original purpose of the land-grant program, said Zachary Wang, a district councilor from the New Territories.