Poor thrown aside in flats crackdown

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hongkongers were relieved when the government cracked down on old buildings jammed with illegally partitioned flats early this year. Two deadly fires last year had roused public concern, and the forced demolition seemed reasonable - except to many of those who were forced to leave their humble homes.

But for many former tenants, their living conditions have become even worse: smaller units, with higher rents and located in remote districts. Landlords, seeing the surge in demand for subdivided units, have raised rents by 20 to 30 per cent.

There was 'utterly no settlement plan in place for [such tenants]', said Sze Lai-shan of the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), which together with other organisations say the government must devise a policy for tenants forced to resettle.

'[The government] must provide a place for these people to move to. They are living in decrepit and dangerous buildings because they can't afford to live anywhere else. No one would choose to live like this.'

Soco is a non-governmental organisation involved in helping cubicle dwellers who have to relocate.

Raymond Ng and Lee Oi-lin were among those forced to leave illegally partitioned factory flats on Larch Street, Tai Kok Tsui, in March. Three months later, both find themselves in even worse housing. Ng lives in a tiny, crowded temporary shelter in Tuen Mun, and Lee inhabits a bug-infested hut in a remote part of Yuen Long.

Ng, 48, moved into a room with six bunks and almost no storage space, in Po Tin Estate, Tuen Mun. He hangs his clothes and belongings around his bunk like drapes for some privacy, and keeps his valuables in his bed. It's 'like a prison cell', where he cannot sleep because of the constant noise from his neighbours, he said.

'The first two months here were very tough,' Ng said. The illegal factory cubicle was better, he said, because 'at least it was my own space'.

When the Post interviewed Ng, he was desperate to leave the temporary shelter. After waiting more than three months, Ng applied and was allocated interim housing in a remote area in Yuen Long recently. He rejected the offer and will reapply for somewhere more convenient, like interim housing available in Po Tin Estate.

'We were promised that we'd get placed there within three months [from March]. It's been four months since I've lived here,' he said. Under government policy, he can live in interim housing until a public housing space becomes available.

'Who likes being on welfare?' said Ng, who worked as a cook until health problems forced him to stop working. 'I can scrape by on my disability allowance, but I hope to find a job back in the kitchen - to at least have something to do. But I need to solve my housing problem first.'

He added: 'The government took away my freedom and my dignity [when they forced me to leave the partitioned flat].'

Another former tenant from the subdivided factory unit is 56-year-old Lee. She moved to a hut in Yuen Long that had been suggested by a social worker from the Buildings Department. Lee had refused to move into a temporary shelter because she wanted to keep her pets.

The roof and walls of Lee's hut are cracked, and scores of bugs drop on her furniture and floor. The nearest minibus stop is 30 minutes' walk away. She and another former tenant split the HK$2,500 rent.

'I feel like the government just threw us aside, to ignore us. They just gave us a [small sum of money] to move out, and that's it,' Lee said. 'Tai Kok Tsui was a lot better - at least we were close to the city.' Lee had to retire from a nursing career and go on welfare when she could no longer handle the back-breaking work.

Hong Kong's decrepit and dangerous partitioned flats made headlines last year after two deadly blazes claimed a total of 14 lives in Mong Kok and Ma Tau Wai.

Since last year's fires, Sze said, more inspections have been conducted and demolition orders handed out. But without a plan to relocate displaced tenants, the substandard housing problem remains unsolved.

'Cracking down on illegal structures without a system to rehouse displaced tenants has just made their problems worse,' she said. 'The government has created a market for landlords to make more money.'

With some cubicle flats facing demolition orders, prices for cubicles and subdivided flats have shot up, with landlords enjoying better business than ever. Rents for subdivided flats have risen 20 to 30 per cent in the past year, Sze said.

Laws that were supposed to regulate subdivided flats have proven to be useless. Some landlords are renovating cage home units into equally lucrative subdivided flats, said Sze.

'There is no shortage of tenants either, so landlords can afford to raise monthly rent by, say, HK$300, and if the tenant refuses to pay the new rent, there is always someone lining up to take their place,' she said.

The number of people forced to relocate is not clear, since no one is counting them. But Soco alone has helped 400 households relocate from flats and factory units facing demolitions. Most families face far higher rents or must move to outlying areas.

The government must give people affordable alternative housing in the short term, while building more public housing, Sze said. About 90 per cent of evicted families have applied for public housing, but the average wait is six to seven years.

Lawmaker Cheung Kwok-che, a member of the Legislative Council's welfare panel, said the government needed a policy on rehousing and resettlement. Without it, the government will only be 'getting rid of illegal structures without really addressing people's needs,' he said.

Cheung suggested reinstating the old policy of providing temporary housing blocks, which were easy to build and could house people for longer periods.

A Buildings Department spokeswoman said the government has been demolishing illegal accommodation for some time. Starting with the factory flats on Larch Street three months ago, a special aid fund was provided by the Community Care Fund to help tenants move out.

While it did not say that a settlement plan was in the works, the government said it would 'ensure that no one would be homeless'.

Meanwhile, another subdivided factory unit on Bedford Street, owned by Wallace Kan - the landlord of the Larch Street property - has been ordered to tear down its partitioned living units. Eleven of the remaining tenants may soon be on the street.