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ORDINARY FAMILY

A Hong Kong court ruled that banning same-sex couples from public housing is unlawful

Vivek Prakash/AFP via Getty Images
Looking for a home.
  • Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

Gay couples looking for a place to live in Hong Kong could now have the option of public housing, thanks to a ruling today by the city’s High Court.

The judicial review was first brought in 2018 by Nick Infinger and his partner, who are both permanent residents of the city. They found their application for public housing as an “ordinary family” rejected by Hong Kong’s Housing Authority, which said that the couple did not meet its definition of husband and wife. They were wed in Canada in 2018 as same-sex marriage is not allowed in Hong Kong.

The judge presiding over the case said that the Housing Authority’s decision violated the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, which guarantees equality for all Hong Kong residents, and equal protection for everyone against discrimination. He said the couple’s application would now have to be reconsidered by the Housing Authority, according to local broadcaster RTHK.

The Housing Authority’s legal counsel had previously argued that the government was entitled to deny housing to same-sex couples because there is already insufficient accommodation for low-income Hong Kong residents, and that LGBT people could still apply for housing as individuals. Following today’s judgment, the Housing Authority can appeal further to the highest court.

The case is one of a number of legal challenges linked to discrimination of LGBT people that have been brought to Hong Kong courts in recent years. A court in October ruled in favor of the government in a legal challenge by a plaintiff who argued the ban on same-sex civil partnerships was unconstitutional. The judge who presided over that case—and also laid down today’s ruling—argued that in strictly legal terms the government did not contravene the plaintiff’s rights, though he noted that there were changing attitudes in society toward gay marriage.

There have been legal victories for LGBT people in Hong Kong, however. In June, the city’s highest court ruled that the government must give spousal benefits to a gay civil servant and his spouse. A year earlier, a judge  said that the government must grant dependent visas to legally recognized gay couples the same way it does for married heterosexual couples following a lengthy legal battle by a British woman who moved to Hong Kong with her female spouse.

Hong Kong’s Housing Authority was founded in 1973 to provide heavily subsidized flats to low-income people. About 45% of people in Hong Kong—the world’s least affordable housing market—live in public housing, often very tiny apartments. More people are turning to public housing as property becomes increasingly unaffordable.

A 2019 University of Hong Kong research paper (pdf) argued that the public housing allocation system unfairly discriminates against LGBT people, meaning they end up incurring much higher housing costs. The system prioritizes “ordinary families” as defined by the Housing Authority, for whom a typical wait for a flat in public housing is around five years. If gay people who are in a couple were to apply as individuals instead, they could wait for as long as 17 years.

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