How much did housing policy contribute to tenement tragedy?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am

Following the tragic event of the collapse of the To Kwa Wan tenement building, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said government departments were ultimately responsible for improving old dwellings ('Lam urges departments to co-operate on fixing old buildings', February 4). I wonder why it would be so.

The upkeep of private buildings in a safe and habitable manner is a legal responsibility of their rightful owners. The role of the government is simply to ensure that owners carry out such a responsibility for keeping their buildings safe and habitable.

Also Mrs Lam said underprivileged people would be living in these buildings and they would need the help of the government. But current public housing policy doesn't seem to be able to cater for such people who are living in illegally subdivided cubicles, in similar old buildings to the one that collapsed. I wonder how the government could help when these underprivileged people simply cannot qualify for public housing. The tragedy in Ma Tau Wai Road reminds us of this ongoing problem of illegally subdivided units in old buildings. But to a large extent this problem is self-inflicted by the government's very own housing policy.

Although many of the displaced victims were living in such subdivided cubicles in the collapsed building, many more are living in similar old buildings in older districts of the city where the Urban Renewal Authority is keen to redevelop.

Showing its 'caring' side, Housing Department chief estate manager Ip Yu-sun said those underprivileged victims of the collapsed tenement building could move into public housing estates quickly, if they qualified.

But for those qualified victims, one may query why they were still living in that old building before its collapse. Why was there such a persistently long queue for public housing that it took a tragedy for the Housing Department to allow a few to jump the queue? Has the department been short of money or land so that more public housing estates could not be built in a timely, controlled and orderly manner to satisfy the needs of the underprivileged living in illegally subdivided cubicles?

Under current public housing policy, people not qualified for public housing can do nothing but continue to live in subdivided units. Even so they are paying market rents, certainly much higher than those for public estates, for less space.

However, if commercial landlords can make a profit from subdivided cubicles in old buildings why can't smaller public housing units be built by the Housing Department or the URA within its redevelopments, under similar annual terms, so that people can be taken away from those illegally subdivided units sooner, or would not get displaced when the URA moves in?

Isn't it high time that the government urgently reviewed its public housing policy before this problem of illegal subdivided units in old dwellings gets out of hand?

Alex Hung, Mong Kok