Last week's fire in a tenement building with subdivided flats in Ma Tau Wai, which claimed four lives, has again raised concern over building safety and the widespread problem of the subdivision of flats in old dilapidated buildings.
Subdivided flats endanger the lives of occupants because these unauthorised units may adversely affect the structure and fire safety of a building. They are not only the worst case of building violation that's associated with the city's prevalent problem of illegal building structures; they are also a ticking time bomb jeopardising the lives of hundreds of thousands of grass-root citizens.
Most of us will remember last year's tragedy, also in Ma Tau Wai, where the collapse of a tenement building claimed four lives. As a result, the chief executive ordered senior officials to look into the problem of illegal building structures across the city and speed up redevelopment of old districts.
Subdivided flats are more than just unauthorised structures; they reflect a serious housing issue. Hong Kong's public housing history began nearly 60 years ago. It was the Shek Kip Mei fire in 1953, which made tens of thousands of squatters homeless overnight, that galvanised the colonial government into embarking on an ambitious programme of public housing. Then came the 10-year housing programme in the 1970s to provide better public housing for the majority of citizens.
Public housing estates are now home to half our population. The waiting time for public rental flats is less than three years. Public housing has effectively solved our basic housing needs.
But, the city now faces another housing crisis - the housing needs of the middle-income group, who can't afford to buy a home because of sky-high prices, and the grass roots, who have to endure poor living conditions.
Subdivided flats are an extended problem of the city's inadequate public housing policy. This problem cannot be ignored because it concerns people's well-being and affects social harmony. Lower-income workers choose to live in subdivided flats because of their convenient location and lower prices but, in fact, their per-square-foot cost could be higher than that for luxury Mid-Levels apartments.
Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told the Legislative Council this week that, from 2008 until the end of April this year, the Housing Department issued 73 orders to remove subdivided flats. But actual work was carried out in only 36 cases, showing that the task of ensuring building safety was only half completed. She also emphasised that the government would pay more attention to safety in these flats and promised to further improve the situation in tenement buildings.
But most worrying were her comments to Legco that subdivided flats are not all unsafe or illegal, and thus the government will 'tolerate' their existence. This might encourage unscrupulous landlords to jump on the bandwagon and develop more subdivided flats for quick profits.
It's appalling to see that not only did Lam fail to come up with solutions; her actions might now exacerbate the problem.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org