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Hong Kong bankers still shun the suburbs even as housing costs surge

Hong Kong bankers housing

Despite ongoing increases in property and rental costs in Hong Kong, which have made it the world’s least affordable city for housing, most bankers are still choosing to live close to the uber expensive Central district.

“Compared to Beijing, in Hong Kong I pay five times more rent for half the space,” says a banker who’s recently relocated from China. But because he works long hours at a bulge bracket firm, proximity to his office in Central – the area of Hong Kong Island where banks typically base front-office staff – is his main housing priority. “I live within walking distance of work,” he adds.

It’s not just about cutting down the commute. Former Morgan Stanley investment banker Sherjan Husainie, now CEO of Hong Kong start-up Employ, says he likes being based close to his “social life”. Many of his industry peers feel the same way. “The majority of young bankers prefer living somewhere around Central as it keeps them near to their friends and social circles,” he adds.

There’s another benefit of locating yourself within the inner regions of Hong Kong Island – it’s easier to hobnob with wealthy clients, who may well live nearby, says Eric Sim, a former UBS MD who now runs a Hong Kong careers institute. “Bankers like to network in their neighbourhoods,” says Sim.

Older bankers with families aren’t necessarily forsaking Hong Kong island either, despite the larger and (slightly) cheaper apartments available in the outlying islands, Kowloon, and the New Territories. “Directors and MDs work very hard and most of the ones I know like to spend as much time as they can with their families, so they don’t like long journeys to work,” says Sim.

“We only considered the Hong Kong side of the harbour; we didn’t want to live on the Kowloon side,” says Francis de la Cruz, a Hong Kong-based banking professional who has two children and is also the founder of The Private Placement Group. “We didn’t want to pay still-high rent in Kowloon for marginally more space, at the cost of being further away from Central.”

De la Cruz and his family have settled in Sai Wan Ho, in the east of Hong Kong Island. “It’s very family friendly and still convenient enough for us to get to Central in less than 15 min by taxi,” he adds. “Our number-one priority was a good clubhouse for our children as we knew space would be limited in our price range.”

For banking professionals who don’t work in highly-paid front-office roles, expensive Hong Kong Island isn’t proving so attractive. Some banks have recently moved operations roles into cheaper locations (Citi’s new local headquarters is based in East Kowloon) meaning their staff can now live away from Central and still be close to the office. But back-office employees working in Central are often prepared to endure a long commute.

Discovery Bay in Lantau Island, which boasts a 400-metre-long beach, golf clubs and a yacht club, is a particular favourite for those looking to escape Hong Kong Island. “I have two young children, so it’s important to have a place that’s big enough for them to move around in,” says a senior operations manager who lives in Lantau but works in Central. “We essentially doubled our square footage compared to an apartment on the main island.”

Lantau’s attractions aren’t limited to room sizes, though. “Hong Kong Island is noisy and jammed-packed, so when I get home I want a bit of a break. We moved further from the conveniences of the city to get a place where our kids can ride their bikes to school, where we can look out our windows and see wildlife and empty space, and where we can open our windows and rarely even hear a car.”

So why don’t more front-office high-flyers move to Hong Kong’s lush, mountainous and relatively underpopulated outlying islands? Unlike his client-facing colleagues, the operations manager says he can usually arrive at and leave the office at similar times each day, allowing him to catch one of the faster rush-hour ferries, which reduces his door-to-door commute to about an hour.

“I don’t see many bankers on my island, and their unpredictable hours might explain why. If you work late and miss the fast ferries, your journey becomes much longer,” he adds. “Also, most of the island is off limits to cars and not everyone is comfortable risking a cycle ride in their suit in the rainy season.”

Image credit: Nikada, getty

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