A city falling down on the housing front
The bizarre and the tragic seem inextricably linked in the murky world of land and buildings policies in Hong Kong. No sooner has the financial secretary ruled out a return to public housing development when none other than New World's Henry Cheng Kar-shun - the big developer with the closest connections to government officials - says there is a need for more public housing.
Is this an honest analysis from a cartel whose influence over the administration killed the public housing programme - once the poster boy of caring government? Or has word come down from on high, bypassing the local bureaucrats, that some concessions to the interests of the restless masses are now necessary?
Or is it that the alternative to a modest revival in public housing is a significant increase in residential land supply, which would make private housing more affordable but hurt the interest of the cartel and its bureaucrat hangers-on, who sit on large amounts of developable land?
That in turn links to two recent tragedies, the Ma Tau Wai Road housing collapse and the Cheung Sha Wan blaze. The buildings concerned apparently housed numerous illegal structures and partitions. The Buildings Department may pretend that these were exceptional cases, but many old buildings have clearly been thus altered without being challenged, then or since.
My two encounters with this department show its ability to harass owners over tiny matters but somehow find ways of helping developers without regard for safety. Myself and adjacent owners were accused of having illegal structures that had to be removed on safety grounds. These were just metal frames for air conditioners, in good condition but a few centimetres wider than permitted by regulations issued after they had been installed. Meanwhile, large numbers of buildings, mostly in poorer districts, have become warrens of illegal structures which are fire hazards if not in danger of collapse.
Not long before my illegal structure case, the Buildings Department had given permission, without informing the owners of one-half of the three-storey, 12-apartment block, for the owner of the other half to demolish it! It had been built as a single building, and different lot numbers were covered by a deed mutual covenant. The department pushed ahead even though consulting engineers said it would threaten the integrity of the remaining half. The demolition did not happen only because the developer decided it would not be commercially viable.
The problem of illegal internal subdivisions is not just a problem of a blind eye being turned to a difficult issue. It relates directly to the lack of will on the part of government to address the lack of low-cost accommodation in inner-city areas and to find a way of rehousing those living in truly squalid conditions other than by destroying communities. The industrial building subdivision issue has its roots partly in the need of small businesses for low-cost accommodation. But it also feeds into the housing issue.
The government has been reluctant to allow large-scale redevelopment of old industrial areas into mixed or residential use because that would force a fall in redevelopment premiums by increasing the de facto supply of land. Thus, the only future for old manufacturing buildings lies in subdivision in ways that make them useful for postindustrial business - but also dangerous.
Urban renewal has instead become focused on schemes that allow the Urban Renewal Authority to find ways around the town planning rules and make huge profits from monstrosities such as the 57-storey Tsim Sha Tsui tower of luxury apartments, a masterpiece of exploitation of the government-big-developer nexus.
But do not expect the Independent Commission Against Corruption ever to look seriously at big development issues. It is yet another top bureaucrat fiefdom.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator