Third sector housing as a social innovation in Hong Kong: a qualitative study

Author: Betty Yung1
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  • 1 City University of Hong Kong, , Hong Kong
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This article focuses on the recent re-emergence of third sector housing in Hong Kong, which is at the beginning of a transitional stage from a phase of being crowded out by public housing to a phase of playing a complementary role to other housing sectors in the housing arena. It aims to explore third sector housing in this transitional stage as a socially innovative approach to address Hong Kong’s housing issues. A stakeholder-centred, interview-based and qualitative data collection approach is adopted to examine holistically the different facets of social innovation in relation to such third sector housing efforts. On the basis of interview findings, it is found that recent third sector housing endeavours are a multifaceted innovation, essentially comprising innovation in terms of seven dimensions, namely concepts, resources, delivery, social relations, objectives, advocacy and mentality. The study on which this article is based distinguishes itself by investigating a case of multidimensional housing innovation in the Asian context of Hong Kong.

Abstract

This article focuses on the recent re-emergence of third sector housing in Hong Kong, which is at the beginning of a transitional stage from a phase of being crowded out by public housing to a phase of playing a complementary role to other housing sectors in the housing arena. It aims to explore third sector housing in this transitional stage as a socially innovative approach to address Hong Kong’s housing issues. A stakeholder-centred, interview-based and qualitative data collection approach is adopted to examine holistically the different facets of social innovation in relation to such third sector housing efforts. On the basis of interview findings, it is found that recent third sector housing endeavours are a multifaceted innovation, essentially comprising innovation in terms of seven dimensions, namely concepts, resources, delivery, social relations, objectives, advocacy and mentality. The study on which this article is based distinguishes itself by investigating a case of multidimensional housing innovation in the Asian context of Hong Kong.

Introduction

In the 21st century, the private–public dichotomy in the Hong Kong housing sector has become essentially a ‘hegemony’, which dominates the approach that underlies policy making, housing advocacy and housing sector practices, as well as the mentality and everyday way of life of common citizens (Yung and Chan, 2020a, 2020b). Housing matters are primarily framed in the context of either the private housing sector or the public housing sector (Yung and Chan, 2020a, 2020b), building up a dualistic structure of state–market dominance in the Hong Kong housing arena. Whenever unresolved housing provision issues occur in the private market, people tend to look towards the public sector for housing solutions in the form of advocacy for an increased supply of public rental housing (PRH), with the government responding with the same mentality by increasing the public–private flat supply ratio from 60:40 to 70:30 in future years (news.gov.hk, 2018).

Yung and Chan (2020a) set the developmental context for understanding recent third sector housing in Hong Kong by applying Mullins et al’s (2001)1 historical-developmental framework (which consists of four phases2 in third sector housing development) to the Hong Kong context and conclude that present-day Hong Kong mainly displays Phase 2 (crowding out by a large public housing sector). Indications are that Hong Kong has recently been transiting from Phase 2 (crowding out) to Phase 3 (complementary role) in third sector housing development (Yung and Chan, 2020a). Yung and Chan (2020a) mainly examine the recent re-emergence of third sector housing by looking at different facilitating environmental factors through policy analysis, without focusing on the inherent characteristics and nature of recent third sector housing attempts. Amidst the dual public–private hegemony in the housing arena, through being innovative in various ways, some third sector housing start-ups (including Light Home, Light Housing, Good House, SOUK and the Community Housing Movement) have emerged in spite of the difficulties.

Innovations oftentimes lead to breakthroughs. This study adds to the context-setting, environment-focused policy analysis study of Yung and Chan (2020a) through empirical, stakeholder-centred and interview-based data collection, focusing on the inherent nature of the recent third sector housing endeavour (rather than the facilitating environment) by examining third sector housing in Hong Kong as social innovation. It attempts to explore the ways in which recent third sector endeavours are innovative, thereby enabling them to break through the public–private housing stalemate, ushering in a transitional stage in Hong Kong’s third sector housing development. The study will contribute to the historical-theoretical framework of third sector housing developments in relation to social origins theory by deepening the understanding of why and how such a transitional stage in Hong Kong’s third sector housing development is attained at this particular time, focusing on its innovative nature.

Social innovation can be evaluated based on the magnitude of social issues addressed and the degree of innovativeness. The recent third sector housing development in Hong Kong, as a social innovative approach, is high in both evaluation criteria. It not only represents an attempt to tackle the housing problem per se but also takes a holistic approach by integrating housing provision with other social objectives, such as community development, the fostering of self-reliance, social capital building and the alleviation of social exclusion – representing the handling of a high number of social issues in the context of housing provision. This study determines that the high degree of innovativeness of the latest third sector housing endeavours is reflected in the multifaceted nature of the innovation, comprising innovation in terms of seven dimensions, namely concepts, resources, delivery, social relations, objectives, advocacy and mentality.

The study aims to examine the recent third sector housing development in Hong Kong as social innovation, covering a lesser-known geographical context for social innovation. It attempts to explore the ways in which such recent third sector housing attempts are innovative, derived from the understanding of different stakeholders in Hong Kong. The study will have an international appeal through exploring social innovation in a transitional stage in third sector housing developments in the Asian context of Hong Kong, which may facilitate an understanding of such a stage in other temporal or geographical contexts in general, as well as that in an Asian context in particular, especially related to the triggering and the acceleration of such a transition.

Social innovation: definition and value

What constitutes social innovation has not been clearly defined (Cnaan and Vinokur-Kaplan, 2015). However, in general, it displays the following characteristics (Bouchard, 2012; Cnaan and Vinokur-Kaplan, 2015; Schmitz, 2015; Belayutham and Ibrahim, 2019):

  • It is a creative, new and novel approach or idea.

  • It breaks with pre-existing mentality and practices.

  • It handles a social issue or problem and meets social needs.

  • It changes attitudes, norms or governance, thereby redefining social relationships.

  • It promotes the good of society.

Most of the efforts to define social innovation are done in the Western (North American or European) context. This study attempts to explore the concept in an Asian context, with reference to the specific case of Hong Kong.

Innovation is not always preferred (Cnaan and Vinokur-Kaplan, 2015). For routines and systems that have long proved to be efficacious, past practices (that have often passed the ‘survival of the fittest’ test for stability, predictability and continuity) may be worth following. However, circumstances change as the socioeconomic–political context evolves. What has worked in the past may fail to adapt to new conditions. Innovations, including social ones, may be initiated, necessitated and welcomed as a new approach to longstanding problems or novel responses to new emerging issues. Often, social innovations are context-specific, being embedded in the certain socioeconomic–historical context of a specific place. Thus, what is innovative in a specific context or place may not be so in another. In light of this, recent third sector housing development conceptualised as civil society re-engagement in housing can be considered a social innovation specific to the well-entrenched private–public dualistic housing structure3 in the Hong Kong context. However, third sector housing may have played a more significant role in housing delivery in the housing systems of other countries.

Not all social innovations can be sustained, routinised and structured into everyday practices. Those that can, may have passed the ‘survival of the fittest’ test, and demonstrated and proved themselves to be successful in bringing some ‘good’ to society in a viable manner, including in terms of efficiency, resulting in a higher level of social and environmental values, better social governance and the satisfaction of unmet social needs. Although, on the whole, society gains from social innovations, some unintended losses may occur (Schmitz, 2015). For example, the development of third sector housing in Hong Kong may adversely affect the interests of some private landlords who lease out low-end private properties to low-income people (the target beneficiaries of third sector housing). However, the present scale of third sector housing is still too small to have a strong influence.

Social innovation and housing: a literature review

Research on social innovation and housing primarily focuses on single-dimensional social innovation, although housing social innovation may have wider outcomes, such as in terms of employment, neighbourhood regeneration, health and social wellbeing (Teasdale, 2012; Mullins, 2013). This study differs from past research projects because it discusses recent third sector housing development as a housing endeavour in Hong Kong that is innovative along various dimensions.

Some of the past efforts in single-dimensional housing innovation are related to third sector housing as a housing delivery mode. Diamantopoulos and Sousa (2014) discuss cooperative housing in Canada as a type of social innovation, reflecting housing innovation in terms of delivery (or provision), whereas Morris (2002) discusses the organisational form of innovation in social housing delivery to solve the slum problem in London in the United Kingdom (UK) between the 1840s and the early 1910s. Raynor (2019) investigates modular transportable dwellings as a type of construction innovation for social housing in Melbourne, Australia.

Some of the social innovations in housing are people- and relation-oriented. Scott (2018) discusses target-group innovation for non-profit housing in the United States, namely affordable housing for grandfamilies. Bajde and Ottlewski (2017) examine socioeconomic innovation in establishing social relations among landlord–tenant co-sharing housing arrangements in Germany. Dewich and Miozzo (2004) focus on the process of innovation, investigating the diffusion of sustainable technologies in the Scottish social housing sector by focusing on interorganisational relations.

Previous works on social innovation and housing focus on other aspects, such as environmental and financial concerns. For example, Lorek and Spangenberg (2019) discuss innovation related to the size of living spaces for energy-sufficient and sustainable houses in European countries. Wainwright and Manville (2016) examine financialisation and innovation in social housing bond markets in the UK.

All the aforementioned past research on social innovation and housing centres on investigations in the Western developed world.4 Conversely, Belayutham and Ibrahim (2019) review a university-enabled social innovation model in a low-cost housing provision in Malaysia. Their study builds on past research on social innovation and housing (which has mostly focused on the Western world) and on the less well-researched geographical context of Asia.5 The present study takes a step further by examining social innovation related to housing (a) by focusing on Hong Kong and (b) by evaluating a multidimensional socially innovative housing endeavour (c) in the third sector housing arena.

The third sector and third sector housing

Yung and Chan (2020a) characterise the third sector by the following:

  • It involves voluntary participation and volunteer engagement.

  • It is in the public arena, which is distinct from the private one.

  • It has an organised structure, in the form of a self-governing organisation.

  • It is non-governmental.

  • It is for the good of the community, instead of profit-seeking and self-serving motives.

  • It operates with a non-profit-distributing restriction, requiring the reinvestment of any surplus for the further pursuit of societal good (see also Salamon and Anheier, 1998; Hulgard, 2011; Kurian, 2011; Yung and Chan, 2020b).

The definition of the third sector adopted in the present study is more widely encompassing in nature, inclusive of conventional non-profit organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), cooperatives and social enterprises. Third sector housing refers to housing provided by the third sector as just defined. Third sector housing in Hong Kong essentially refers to non-profit housing provision that is primarily civil-society-based, although such housing provision may have various modes of relations built up with the government, businesses, other private bodies and individuals in society.

Third sector housing development in Hong Kong – relevant contexts

In recent years, relevant contexts congenial to the development of third sector housing have been set by different stakeholders, facilitating its re-emergence in 21st-century Hong Kong. First, in terms of the policy context, the Hong Kong government’s main conception of third sector housing is in the form of ‘transitional housing’. Such housing provides for those living in inadequate housing who have waited for PRH for three or more years (Legislative Council Secretariat, 2020) and who ideally will be able to move into PRH after dwelling in transitional housing for two years. The government has set the provision target for transitional housing in the coming years (15,000 units from 2020 to 2023). This plan provides relevant funding for such projects (a commitment of HK $ 8.3 billion) and supports NGOs in their identification of suitable land and housing resources for transitional housing provision, such as the facilitation of modular housing construction on idle land and the use of low-occupancy hotels and guesthouses for transitional housing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic (HKSAR, 2018, 2020; Legislative Council Secretariat, 2020). The Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund (SIE Fund) of the government, financing social innovations in Hong Kong, is also one of the funding sources for third sector housing development. In particular, third sector housing is recognised as a social innovation in Hong Kong; for example, the Community Housing Movement of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) is partially funded by the SIE Fund.

The increasing emphasis on the corporate social responsibility of private corporations has also set the private sector context for the development of third sector housing. One of the big developers in Hong Kong donates land near subway stations in a district away from the city centre for a token of HK $1 to Light Be, a third sector housing organisation; such an act aims to build the Light Village to help the lower end of Hong Kong’s ‘sandwich class’ who are above the income limits of PRH, yet have difficulty affording private housing or homeownership (Li, 2019). Another developer makes land (awaiting redevelopment) in a district near the city centre temporarily available on a HK $1 token rent for the construction of modular housing by a third sector organisation (Leung, 2018). Besides land resources, financial resources in the form of a charity fund set up by private corporations, also contribute to the facilitating environment for third sector housing development; for example, Light Be obtained its first funding from Chow Tai Fook Charity Fund in 2016 (Li, 2019).

Hong Kong has a well-entrenched third sector involved in service delivery, especially in the social service and education arena. The established social service infrastructure (including the third sector structure, network, platform, service delivery mode and practices) nurtures a facilitating environment for the development of third sector housing (Yung and Chan, 2020a). The management and operation of the Community Housing Movement Project of the HKCSS is an example that leverages such established infrastructure, especially in the identification of operating agencies, housing and related non-housing service design, and the recruitment and selection of appropriate residents for individual transitional housing projects (HKCSS, 2017).

Civil society also has a role to play for the re-emergence of third sector housing in Hong Kong. Within civil society, professional bodies and benevolent landlords play an indispensable part in third sector housing development. The former are in partnership with third sector housing organisations, with members and individual professionals, such as lawyers and architects, providing voluntary professional advice and support (HKCSS, 2017). The latter contribute by their willingness to rent out their properties at below-market rent level through third sector housing organisations as a form of housing philanthropy. All in all, the initiative and innovativeness of the third sector housing organisations in civil society pull all these resources in the relevant congenial contexts together for the eventual delivery of third sector housing in the 21st century. In this manner, third sector housing has played not only its main role (as conceived by the government) in providing transitional housing to people with a low income in mainstream society, but also the additional role of housing those marginalised ‘difficult-to-home’ households, such as ex-prisoners and single-parent families, representing a pioneering approach to dealing with different difficult-to-solve housing issues in Hong Kong.

Methodology

This study adopted a qualitative data collection research approach. The data collection approach was stakeholder-based, instead of organisational-based, because the aim was to collect information on how Hong Kong society (as represented by different stakeholders in the housing arena) views recent third sector housing developments as a whole. The former approach was adopted to gain a more holistic and balanced perspective, as well as to avoid the danger of the latter approach, which may focus on the small-circle third sector organisational personnel ‘singing their own praises’. The data on various dimensions of housing innovation related to recent third sector housing developments were empirically derived from 35 cases (33 interviews and two written replies as interview replacements) of different stakeholders in the Hong Kong housing arena. The 35 cases consisted of five third sector housing organisation representatives, four property sector practitioners, four subsidised homeownership residents, four private homeowners, three public housing tenants, three self-contained private housing tenants, three tenants dwelling in inadequate private housing, three representatives of housing-pressure groups, two non-housing social service organisation representatives, two residents of third sector housing, one housing official from the Transport and Housing Bureau and one former government town planner. The interviewees were identified through telephone or written invitation, via personal networks or by referrals from social service organisations that provide social services or third sector housing. Purposive sampling was used to identify various stakeholders as participants, especially those from different age groups, genders or major Hong Kong housing tenures. This data collection design was intended to collect views on recent third sector housing developments from different major stakeholders in the housing arena. Interviewing past and present officials, housing and non-housing third sector organisations and practitioners working in the housing sector provided an overview of third sector developments, and this was complemented with information from individuals from different housing tenures who may have shared common characteristics and views with the Hong Kong population. All these were supplemented by first-hand information collected from third sector housing residents.

The interviews were semi-structured, covering various aspects of recent developments in third sector housing, challenges and opportunities, as well as prospects in third sector housing. The interviews were conducted in Cantonese, the common mother tongue of most HongKongers. The interviews were recorded, translated into English6 and transcribed, as well as analysed manually. Emerging themes related to various dimensions of social innovation with regard to recent third sector housing developments in Hong Kong were identified, classified and analysed. These qualitative data were arranged in accordance with the different themes in the following section, with interview extracts given as illustrations and supporting evidence.

Multifaceted social innovation dimensions: third sector housing in Hong Kong

This study inductively determined that recent third sector housing development in Hong Kong can be considered a multifaceted social innovation, comprising of innovation along seven dimensions. This classification is for the sake of analysis and discussion. These different dimensions are interrelated and interact with one another rather than having a clear-cut and iron-clad categorisation. Such groupings, in accordance with the nature of innovation in third sector housing development, are mainly based on the themes that emerged from analysis of the qualitative data (interviews and written replies) collected in this study.7

Conceptual innovation

The development of third sector housing in Hong Kong is a conceptual breakthrough in Hong Kong beyond the private–public dualistic divide, with the imagination of the third sector as a possible third approach in housing provision, although it may still be nascent and small-scale at this stage. This conceptual dimension of innovation is reflected in the following interview excerpt:

‘We get used to the habit. We, from the time when we were young till grown up; I often say, housing provision, Hong Kong housing provision is a bipolar structure – private or public sector [provision], all or nothing. If you have money, you [live in] private [housing]. If you do not have money, [you live in] public [housing]. If you do not have money and have not queued up [successfully] for public [housing provision], you then have to wait. I think we work on social housing, one [of] the most important things we want to do is, in this bipolar structure, can we create a third thing? This thing is not purely public [sector] and not purely private [sector], but [a] negotiated version of housing provision [in the form of third sector housing] …’ (Case 4, third sector organisation representative, male)

This conceptual innovation is not limited to the imagination of the possibility of the involvement of the third sector as a third approach in housing provision in addition to the entrenched private and public sectors, but also stretches to the entire concept of housing in the eyes of Hong Kong citizens. Housing has long been viewed as instrumental for consumption and investment in Hong Kong; third sector housing inspires HongKongers to participate in housing philanthropy (Yung and Chan, 2020b), such that housing units can be leased out at below-market rent for benevolence instead of being used to maximise returns and profits. One interviewee even considered housing philanthropy as a better charitable option than other alternatives because the benefit to the service recipient is more direct:

‘I think [comparing] donating money and donating a flat [for renting below the market rent], I think donating a flat is much more practical … Because if I rented out at [a] low rent [level], this is very concrete help to the resident. If I donate money to the charitable organisations, this may not directly help them … with admin[istrative] cost la. And also the [charitable service] practice may not really [give] them what they need … the services and [other different dimensions] may not be what they need … [housing], yes, is [a] much more direct [way to help them].’ (Case 32, private housing tenant, over 60 years old, female)

Conceptually, third sector housing is innovative in two respects: (a) acting as a third approach beyond the deeply rooted visualisation of private and public housing provision in Hong Kong; and (b) conceiving housing as a form of philanthropy in addition to housing consumption and investment, at least in the eyes of some people. The seeds of these conceptual innovations are sown. However, how widespread they become and how deeply rooted they will be embraced in Hong Kong in the future remain unknown.

Resource innovation

Third sector housing is innovative in seeking various under-utilised land and housing resources for affordable housing provision. A third sector housing organisation representative summarised different types of benevolent landlords who are willing to lease out their properties at below-market rent for people in need:

‘There are a few types. One type, from our experiences, one type may perhaps, be [inherited] ancestral flats. Based on some personal factors, they do not want to sell [the flat], however, do not prefer to turn it into subdivided units … they think that it is [an] ancestral flat, they should not [subdivide it] … Another type … individual landlord live[s] in [a] certain flat, but the floor level is comparatively high … don’t know based on what reasons, they do not want to sell. [They] have other places to live … or [moving to] live with their family members, [they feel] OK. They do not know how to lease it out, perhaps, they are not familiar with this [engagement]. They find us [to help them to lease it out]. We lease it out [on their behalf] so that they have [a] certain [level of] income. These are the second type. Another type … the landlord is already not in Hong Kong; [the unit] is left vacant for a long time. Suddenly, they watch the news and see [third sector housing]; given [their flat] has been vacant for more than 10 years … they approach us … they do not care for the rent [level very much] … [their flat] is awaiting redevelopment. The fourth type is … they have a flat available, however, they have no money to renovate it … Roughly, there are these four types of individual landlords … For developers’ flats, usually [they are those] awaiting redevelopment … perhaps benefit you a little bit.’ (Case 3, third sector housing organisation representative, male)

In addition to land and housing resources in civil society, third sector efforts have also ignited government-facilitating policies in attempting to maximise the use of idle government land resources for third sector housing provision. This notion was brought out in an interview with a housing official:

‘In the recent Policy Address, [the government] stated that it earmarked one billion [Hong Kong dollars] as funds for organisations to apply if they use the idle government land or buildings for restructuring … or changing them into transitional housing. In fact, they can apply for funding to subsidise [their projects]. The government also said that if she has idle land or building structures, the organisations can also apply to change these into transitional housing. These are the support[s] available …’ (Case 1, housing official, male)

In addition to using idle land and housing resources in the private and public sectors and civil society, third sector housing is also dependent on volunteer resources. A third sector organisation representative interviewee (case 7, male) indicated that they received voluntary help from designers in renovating housing units ‘without getting a cent’ from them, and such volunteers were identified through promotion and networking. In addition to professional volunteers, some voluntary help from lay people (such as for home moving and basic cleaning) could also be sought in third sector housing provision.

Thus, recent third sector housing provision is a pioneering effort in seeking various resources for affordable housing options and extracting under-utilised land and housing resources in the private and public sectors, as well as in civil society, together with volunteer efforts and support. Such utilisation of idle and extra resources for housing provision might be an innovation that has never been imagined before.

Delivery innovation

The initial attempts in recent third sector housing involve delivery-mode innovation, in which third sector rental units are rented out at below-market rates to people in need and those who are disadvantaged. However, such housing may often be very old and need renovation and maintenance to provide a decent and liveable environment. These types of work need effort and money. Third sector housing organisations use those means, often with charitable and government resources, to achieve a win–win situation, with the landlord and third sector housing residents benefiting in different ways. The housing pressure-group representative concluded that this win–win situation is a market niche that the third sector carves out as one of its housing delivery modes:

‘[F]or benevolent landlord[s], this concept, I think, is being constructed. In fact, many landlord[s], with their flat staying there, they need to handle maintenance … For example, HKCSS, they have a policy framework set up, they can help [the landlords] to handle repair problem[s], maintenance problem[s] and at the same time do some charity. They, thus, will be willing to [lease] out [the housing at below the market rent]. In fact, in reality, [the landlord] has some rental income. If we see “benevolent” [landlords], they are not completely charity … there is a demand; they can find a market niche. We can think [of] this in term[s] of market. They can fulfil a certain demand in the market. On the one hand, [this] helps the landlords to handle maintenance and financing problems. On the other hand, they can get the [housing unit] for [the provision of third sector housing] … there are a lot of old buildings, 50 or 60, 40 or 50 years of building age. The owner may be of old age; they may not have a great ability to maintain their housing and they do not need to live in such housing. There are such type[s] of housing units existing in Hong Kong. [The third sector housing organisations] see this market and this demand, think that there is potential … whether third sector housing is feasible? At least, it maps out such [a] market. This market, I think, is not small …’ (Case 8, housing pressure-group representative, male)

Such a market niche that fosters a mutually beneficial situation may make third sector housing more sustainable and viable in the long run, as reflected in the following comment from a non-housing social service organisation representative:

‘If [a] win–win [situation], only will this shine and be radiant. If [it requires] extreme benevolence … we can only find [a] very, very small number of such [landlords] … We need to trust the vision of a social worker and his/her values, not siding [with] the landlord. If the old landlord and the tenant benefit at the same time, the whole event is more beautiful, more worthwhile, will thus have more people to join …’ (Case 18, non-housing social service organisation representative, male)

Benevolence may be a source of support for third sector housing. However, if the third sector housing delivery mode can be a win–win situation for all (small ‘benevolent’ landlords, donors of land and housing resources and service recipients included), then such third sector housing engagements will be more workable and sustainable in the long run. Benevolence alone cannot make third sector housing work well; other factors, such as residents’ participation and co-production, are equally important in making third sector housing delivery more viable and successful (HKCSS, 2020). Such an advantageous situation will be a significant delivery-mode innovation, pioneering the affordable housing provision approach in the Hong Kong context.

Social relations innovation

Third sector housing is not housing provision per se, but is innovative in social relations building. This notion is particularly true for co-sharing third sector housing residents who may build up mutual support, care and social capital. This aspect was highlighted in an interview with a single parent living in third sector housing:

‘Because I have a son, because if I go to work, one day per week, I need to work overnight. In fact, I, of course, would like to have someone, whether accompany [my son], in case there is emergency, I am feeling much at ease since there is the [co-living elderly couple] keeping an eye; I feel at ease. There is someone in [the housing unit], I feel that I can [devote] my attention to work at ease … Yes, it is good. After moving into this [housing], I feel much happier. Also, the rental burden is much less.’ (Case 15, resident of third sector housing, female)

One interviewee indicated his willingness to be a ‘benevolent’ landlord and visualised the special relations built up with the tenant. Thus, third sector housing allows the reconceptualisation of landlord–tenant relations – not being exploitative and asymmetrical, but being cordially and mutually fulfilling for both parties:

‘If [I have] extra flats, I will consider [becoming a benevolent landlord] … For donating money, the money goes, but [you are] not quite clear how the money is used. If [I] rent our flat [as third sector housing] for the method of co-sharing housing, this can definitely benefit a group of people [and you see the effect], yes. Also, [I] go to meet these [residents] now and then, broadening my horizon … Like hostels overseas, the landlord[s] have different ways of communicating with the residents. Yes, thus I think this mode [of third sector housing] is quite good.’ (Case 19, public housing tenant, 21–40 years old, male)

Thus, third sector housing has a dimension of social relations innovation, in landlord–tenant relations and inter-resident relations. Such social relations are constructive in social capital building, empowerment and the enforcement of mutualism.

Innovation in objectives

As noted earlier, third sector housing is not merely housing provision per se. It is innovative in reconceptualising the housing problem as integrated with other social issues. Housing is envisaged as a means to handle other social issues, with the objective of integrating housing and social governance. The way in which third sector housing is an innovation in objectives can be summarised in the following excerpt:

‘Thus, when we look at [this] transitional housing, we should not look at it [merely] as a housing unit. Rather, this housing unit provision is integrated with social services, some sort of counselling category [of services], [to] help the family to undergo a difficult period. Some of [this transitional housing is] comparatively concentrated; [it] can create a neighbourly community. Such neighbourly community, perhaps, their background is similar, with their own problems; they can mutually help each other. Also, with the neighbourly relations, they can build up their [different] capacity for living, self-confidence etcetera. Thus, when we look at this, we should not just consider it as a physical shelter. In fact, there are a lot of other social support[s].’ (Case 2, former government town planner, male)

Third sector housing aims to address social exclusion and isolation related to inadequate housing conditions. Through social services it aims to integrate the residents with the neighbourhood and community, such as introducing residents to the community services available in the neighbourhood and getting residents involved in voluntary services in the neighbourhood. This condition is reflected in the following interview extract:

‘We all know that there are some who live in [a] very poor housing environment; we [are] concern[ed about] their whole living environment; not only the physical environment, but the[ir] living in the whole neighbourhood. We all know that, in fact, living in [a] subdivided unit is very isolat[ing]; there people do not have neighbourhood support. They do not get to know people, with limited resources; their own personal resources are scarce, neighbourhood support and resources are not much … We more think of, through housing resources, introduc[ing] them into a community and then we provide them with [social] services.’ (Case 4, third sector organisation representative, male)

Third sector housing may not be aimed merely at housing provision but also at achieving other social objectives through housing provision, such as integrating older people and young people in the community and promoting social empowerment, social integration and self-reliance. This approach can be considered innovative in objectives compared with conventional housing provision.

Innovation in advocacy

Third sector housing can also be considered an innovation in policy advocacy. One third sector housing organisation viewed implementation as a form of advocacy, as indicated in the following excerpt:

‘Those involve[d] are [the] landlord, tenant and NGO. Yes, this is social housing, but at the same time, we most emphasise the question of [the] lease. We negotiate with the landlord about the lease; the landlord needs to agree, including terms – rent below market level, the tenant has priority in [terms of the] right of renewal [of the lease], notice period of [an] increase of rent, if need to ask the tenant to move [because of] different reasons, there needs to have [a] three to six months’ notice period. Also, to increase the rent in accordance with [the] inflation [rate]. All these terms, we call this equal standard lease … All these terms are, in fact, rent control … The argument of the government is that the landlords are not willing; thus, we do not implement rent control. We start to build up a model to argue that … some landlords are OK with these [lease] terms …’ (Case 6, third sector housing organisation representative, female)

The above excerpt is an interesting illustration of the use of third sector organisation practice to model wider changes that the government might be persuaded to adopt in the future. Such third sector organisations mainly view third sector housing provision as a strategy for policy advocacy and less as merely housing service provision. Demonstrating the feasibility of a certain housing relation arrangement model through implementation may be considered an innovative approach to policy advocacy in the Hong Kong context.

Innovation in mentality

The recent third sector housing endeavours bring forth innovation in mentality, especially on the part of civil society, regarding its potential role in the housing arena in carving a niche and adding value. This condition draws out the sector’s courage, imagination, hope and confidence in the continual search for other future housing possibilities and experiments in the Hong Kong housing arena. A third sector organisation representative summarised this mentality as follows:

‘If you walk out [on] a social housing civil [society] path, there will be many civil [society] organisation stakeholders [who] know there is a space for imagination. Ah! Perhaps, I think of other [possibilities]. You will able to incentivise such [housing imaginations] … For other NGOs, they can see in their future services, there is a thing called social housing … how can we [use social housing as a means] to enhance what they concern … how can you use a physical [housing provision] to help those people [in need]?’ (Case 4, third sector housing organisation representative, male)

The momentum has been ignited, and there exists a continual search for other forms of third sector housing experiments that are innovative in building mode, service targets, service duration and service mode, among others. One interviewee outlined this continual endeavour as follows:

‘Different [third sector housing] organisations can try different formats. I know some NGOs want to provide short-term hostels; this may be possible … such [as a hostel] target for some women, like domestic violence or with [a] very imminent [situation], come to stay for one or two nights or a week. In fact, in society, there are such hostels, but in fact, very limited [provision], very, very limited … Are there any people to continue to explore [this]? Yes, yes, yes [needs imagination]. In fact, refugees, do they in fact form a category [for third sector housing]? … If you ask the government to imagine [such possibilities], it may be a bit difficult. Even if [the government] can imagine [these], they do not dare [to implement them] … They may not understand [the needs of such minority groups]. They have a very broad policy; seldom will the policy [target] minority [groups]. Such work should [be] given back to us as non-profit organisations to think … create [different third sector housing] in different form[s], [rented out] for different durations …’ (Case 10, housing organisation representative, female)

Third sector housing endeavours to represent an innovation in mentality on the part of civil society where the participants continue to search for future roles to play in the housing arena and potential housing solutions to tackle housing and social problems in Hong Kong.

Conclusion

Concluding inductively from the qualitative findings of the study, the recent third sector housing endeavours in Hong Kong can be considered a multifaceted social innovation, comprising of innovation along different dimensions, namely concepts, delivery, resources, social relations, objectives, advocacy and mentality. Such third sector attempts are innovative in the economic–social–historical context of Hong Kong, which has a public–private dichotomy in the housing arena, and clear a new path in housing delivery. Whether an innovation can be firmly established, sustained, adapted and further developed, bringing about far-reaching changes, depending on the test through time and third sector housing as a social innovation, is no exception. This area will be an important area for exploration in future research efforts.

By applying abductive reasoning, among the various dimensions of innovation in recent third sector housing endeavours, the conceptual innovation dimension may have the potential to be fundamental and far-reaching. This condition involves a reconceptualisation of housing as not merely to serve one’s interest in housing consumption and maximising one’s gain in housing investment, but opens up a new option to use housing for philanthropy. On the basis of this new concept of housing, the third sector approach opens up beyond the private and public sectors through engaging the third sector in housing provision. Only time will tell whether this conceptual innovation can be spread more widely and take deeper roots in the minds of HongKongers in the future. However, the promotional efforts of different stakeholders, including the third sector, government, third sector housing residents and the media, may be indispensable for future momentum in the development of third sector housing in Hong Kong. Whether a platform will be available for sustained efforts to act on this redefined conceptual framework will also be critical to translate nascent third sector housing attempts into a ‘third sector housing movement’, with extensive results in the Hong Kong housing sector.

The summative view of the analysis and evidence in this study indicates that among all the innovation dimensions, the one with the greatest enduring transformative influence is innovation in mentality. This condition empowers and triggers future continual efforts on the part of civil society to search for pioneering ways to handle housing and social issues in Hong Kong, not only in the housing provision mode but also in targeting service recipients, the duration of housing service, sources of support and new untapped resources. This mentality of continually searching for and experimenting with new and better housing solutions, in the spirit of trial and error, may lead to outcomes that cannot be visualised at this stage. All these are built upon the hopes, confidence and experience that the third sector gained in recent housing delivery endeavours, thereby paving the way for future developments.

This study mainly adopted a stakeholder-based data collection approach, which may have the advantage of having a more holistic societal perspective on third sector housing as a housing sector. However, the limitation of such an approach is its limited insights into specific organisational issues of third sector housing organisations, with such an approach tending to overlook certain organisational and practitioner angles, such as the difficulties and concerns of third sector housing practitioners and the organisational differences between third sector housing organisations, among others. Future research efforts may take up an organisation- or practitioner-based approach, investigating different third sector organisations that may be more narrowly based or multifaceted in housing innovation; and how they differ in terms of their existing ‘business model’, viability, sustainability of income stream and resource dependency, as well as wider social outcomes. Third sector housing residents’ participation and co-production may also be a direction for future research. Such future research directions will help develop further insights into the issues discussed in this article.

Notes

1

On the basis of the social origins theory of non-profit development of Salamon and Anheier (1998) and its applications by Mullins (2000) to the context of English housing associations, Mullins et al (2001) further generalise the four-phase historical–developmental framework of third sector housing from Western experiences, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and English housing associations.

2

Phase 1 is early philanthropy, Phase 2 is crowding out, Phase 3 is complementary role and Phase 4 is mainstream role.

3

In 2019, 45% of the population lived in public housing (self-owned or rented), whereas 54.3% lived in private permanent housing and 0.7% lived in temporary housing (Transport and Housing Bureau, 2020), with the large public housing sector crowding out past third sector housing. The past third sector housing efforts, such as that of the Hong Kong Housing Society, lingered on in a residual form up until the recent re-emergence of third sector housing, which is innovative along various dimensions (as discussed in the latter part of this article).

4

Discussions on hybridity in housing in the Asian context are available, such as Wang and Murie (2011) and Lee and Ronald’s (2012) works, which are related to mainland China and Korea, respectively.

5

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service (2020) documented some experiences of third sector housing residents and operators. The recent Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation also attempted to build capacity and promote collaborations and education in relation to social innovation in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation, 2021).

6

Translation was carried out by the author, whose mother tongue is Cantonese and second language is English.

7

Such data and themes take a holistic view of sectoral innovation (that is, whole third housing sector as an innovation), not merely focusing on innovations within an organisation.

Acknowledgements

Before joining City University of Hong Kong, I conducted some research work related to this article under my capacity as Centre Research Fellow in the Centre for Governance and Citizenship (CGC) at the Education University of Hong Kong, with which I was affiliated. I would like to thank CGC for its support.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Teasdale, S. (2012) Negotiating tensions: how do social enterprises in the homelessness field balance social and commercial considerations?, Housing Studies, 27(4): 51432. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2012.677015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Transport and Housing Bureau (2020) Housing in figures, https://www.thb.gov.hk/eng/psp/publications/housing/HIF2020.pdf.

  • Wainwright, T. and Manville, G. (2016) Financialization and the third sector: innovation in social housing bond markets, Environment and Planning A, 49(4): 81938. doi: 10.1177/0308518X16684140

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wang, Y.P. and Murie, A. (2011) The new affordable and social housing provision system in China: implications for comparative housing studies, International Journal of Housing Policy, 11(3): 23754. doi: 10.1080/14616718.2011.599130

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yung, B. and Chan, A. (2020a) Third sector housing in 21st century Hong Kong – opportunities and challenges, Voluntary Sector Review, 11(3): 33758. doi: 10.1332/204080520X15822993627366

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yung, B. and Chan, A. (2020b) Third sector housing: housing philanthropy, self-reliance and policy facilitation, in B. Yung and K.P. Yu (eds) Land and Housing Controversies n Hong Kong: Perspectives of Justice and Social Values, Singapore: Springer, pp 4162.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bajde, D. and Ottlewski, L. (2017) Cultural challenges of social-economic innovation: the case of ‘Housing for Help’, Research in Consumer Behavior, 18: 93107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Belayutham, S. and Ibrahim (2019) A dual-functional social innovation process model for low-cost houses through university-enabled initiative, Construction Innovation, 19(2): 12648. doi: 10.1108/CI-07-2017-0062

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bouchard, M.J. (2012) Social innovation, an analytical grid for understanding the social economy: the example of the Quebec housing sector, Service Business, 6(1): 4759. doi: 10.1007/s11628-011-0123-9

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cnaan, R.A. and Vinokur-Kaplan, D. (2015) Social innovation: definitions, clarifications and a new model, in R.A. Cnaan and D. Vinokur-Kaplan (eds) Cases in Innovative Nonprofits: Organizations That Make a Difference, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, pp 116.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dewick, P. and Miozzo, M. (2004) Networks and innovation: sustainable technologies in Scottish social housing, R&D Management, 34(3): 32333.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Diamantopoulos, M. and Sousa, J. (2014) Rebuilding ‘home’ in a transient world: globalization, social exclusion, and innovations in co-operative housing, in B. Fairbairn and N. Russell (eds) Co-operative Canada: Empowering Communities and Sustainable Businesses, Toronto: UBC Press, pp 15886.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HKCSS 香港社會服務聯會 (2017) 社會房屋共享計劃啟動禮 (in Chinese), https://www.hkcss.org.hk/%E7%A4%BE%E6%9C%83%E6%88%BF%E5%B1%8B%E5%85%B1%E4%BA%AB%E8%A8%88%E5%8A%83%E5%95%9F%E5%8B%95%E7%A6%AE.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HKCSS 香港社會服務聯會 (2020) 住: 以人為主 - 社會房屋共生實踐 (in Chinese), 香港: 香港社會服務聯會

  • HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) (2018) The Chief Executive’s 2018 Policy Address, Hong Kong: HKSAR Government, https://www.policyaddress.gov.hk/2018/eng.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HKSAR (2020) The Chief Executive’s 2020 Policy Address, Hong Kong: HKSAR Government, https://www.policyaddress.gov.hk/2020/eng/policy.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hong Kong Council of Social Service (2020) Housing: People-oriented – Implementation of Social Housing Co-living (in Chinese), Hong Kong: Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation (2021) Supporting social impact in Hong Kong, https://www.chicagobooth.edu/landing/social-innovation-programme.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hulgard, L. (2011) Social economy and social enterprise: an emerging alternative to mainstream market economy?, China Journal of Social Work, 4(3): 20115. doi: 10.1080/17525098.2011.619643

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kurian, G.T. (2011) Third sector, in G.T. Kurian (ed) The Encyclopedia of Political Science, Washington, DC: CQ Press, pp 16613.

  • Lee, H. and Ronald, R. (2012) Expansion, diversification and hybridization in Korean public housing, Housing Studies, 27(4): 495513. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2012.677018

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Legislative Council Secretariat (2020) Updated Background Brief Prepared by the Legislative Council Secretariat on Transitional Housing, Hong Kong: Legislative Council, https://www.legco.gov.hk/yr20-21/english/panels/hg/papers/hg20201102cb1-54-4-e.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leung, T.L. 梁德倫 (2018) 社聯首個項目選址曝光 恆地捐深水涉唐按建地 (in Chinese) 香港, https://www.hk01.com/%E7%A4%BE%E6%9C%83%E6%96%B0%E8%81%9E/179499.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, S. (2019) New world’s land donation in Tin Shui Wai to be turned into 100-home ‘light village’ by social-housing group, South China Morning Post, 16 October, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/world-land-donation-tin-shui-094330247.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lorek, S. and Spangenberg, J.H. (2019) Energy sufficiency through social innovation in housing, Energy Policy, 126: 28794. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2018.11.026

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morris, S. (2002) Organizational innovation in Victorian social housing, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 31(2): 186206. doi: 10.1177/08964002031002002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mullins, D. (2000) Social origins and transformations: the changing role of English housing associations, International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 11(3): 25575. doi: 10.1023/A:1008975826345

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mullins, D. (2013) Scaling-up or going viral? Comparing self-help housing and community land trust facilitation, Voluntary Sector Review, 4(3): 33353. doi: 10.1332/204080513X671931

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mullins, D., Rhodes, M.L. and Williamson, A. (2001) Organizational fields and third sector housing in Ireland, north and south, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 12(3): 25778. doi: 10.1023/A:1012343418074

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • news.gov.hk (2018) Public housing proportion to increase, https://www.news.gov.hk/eng/2018/12/20181221/20181221_164108_983.html.

  • Raynor, K. (2019) Assembling an innovative social housing project in Melbourne: mapping the potential for social innovation, Housing Studies, 34(8): 126385. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2018.1535054

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salamon, L.M. and Anheier, H.K. (1998) Social origins of civil society: explaining the nonprofit sector cross-nationally, International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 9(3): 21348. doi: 10.1023/A:1022058200985

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schmitz, B. (2015) Social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and social mission organizations: toward a conceptualization, in R.A. Cnaan and D. Vinokur-Kaplan (eds) Cases in Innovative Nonprofits: Organizations That Make a Difference, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, pp 1742.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scott, J. (2018) Pemberton Park for grandfamilies: an innovation in social purpose, affordable housing, Journal of the American Society in Aging, 42(3): 3740.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Teasdale, S. (2012) Negotiating tensions: how do social enterprises in the homelessness field balance social and commercial considerations?, Housing Studies, 27(4): 51432. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2012.677015

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Transport and Housing Bureau (2020) Housing in figures, https://www.thb.gov.hk/eng/psp/publications/housing/HIF2020.pdf.

  • Wainwright, T. and Manville, G. (2016) Financialization and the third sector: innovation in social housing bond markets, Environment and Planning A, 49(4): 81938. doi: 10.1177/0308518X16684140

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wang, Y.P. and Murie, A. (2011) The new affordable and social housing provision system in China: implications for comparative housing studies, International Journal of Housing Policy, 11(3): 23754. doi: 10.1080/14616718.2011.599130

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yung, B. and Chan, A. (2020a) Third sector housing in 21st century Hong Kong – opportunities and challenges, Voluntary Sector Review, 11(3): 33758. doi: 10.1332/204080520X15822993627366

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yung, B. and Chan, A. (2020b) Third sector housing: housing philanthropy, self-reliance and policy facilitation, in B. Yung and K.P. Yu (eds) Land and Housing Controversies n Hong Kong: Perspectives of Justice and Social Values, Singapore: Springer, pp 4162.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 City University of Hong Kong, , Hong Kong

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