Boom in illegal factory flats

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am


Old factory buildings are being illegally converted into subdivided housing - and the trend is on the rise.

Each of the city's older factory areas - such as Kwun Tong, Tai Kok Tsui and San Po Kong - hold at least 10 to 20 such buildings and many are dangerous, according to the Society for Community Organisation (Soco).

But officials said their hands were tied as they had difficulty getting into private premises to conduct checks.

Soco said it had seen an increase in the number of illegally subdivided factories in the past two to three years, and expected more as rents continued to soar and public housing supply remained inadequate.

'[Factory-turned illegal housing] is even cheaper than subdivided flats in old residential buildings. But many of them are even more dangerous,' said Soco organiser Chan Siu-ming, who works on problems arising from subdivided flats.

He said there was an increase in demand for these tiny dwellings, but the supply was declining as many old buildings converted into subdivided flats were being demolished for redevelopment.

'I've tried looking for a decent one-room place, but with the welfare [my son and I] are receiving, it's just not possible,' said Li Hung-ha, who has been living in a factory-converted room in Tai Kok Tsui with her nine-month-old son Li Ngo-hin.

Li said the same rent in another building would provide her with a room a third the size of her factory-converted room. They are in a long line waiting for public housing.

Chan said that while homes in converted factories tended to be bigger, many had serious safety problems.

Two buildings visited by the South China Morning Post in Tai Kok Tsui were built in the 1950s and '60s, and are restricted to industrial purposes, according to government records.

One factory in Larch Street had one floor divided into three levels and partitioned into 35 to 40 rooms, housing 40 to 50 people in an area limited to 36 factory workers.

Inside the rooms, wires for air-conditioning, lighting and all electrical outlets are stapled onto the walls, completely exposed. Hallways and the rooms the Post saw were scrubbed clean, but nothing could disguise the crumbling and flaking walls, the water-stained ceilings and flimsy wooden stairs connecting the three floors within the factory unit.

'It gets harder here in the summer. Fleas have been biting my baby - he's been feeling unwell for the past few weeks now,' Li said. But she added that at least the rooms were big with room for her son - just learning how to crawl - to move around.

The second location in Bedford Street had a 'workers only' sign hanging on the rusted industrial iron door. The compartments inside were smaller than in the first one but had central air conditioning. Rents in both buildings are from HK$1,500 to HK$2,400, including electricity.

'This is the only place I can afford,' said a 57-year-old tenant, who would not give his full name. He agreed that the place was expensive if calculated per square foot, but the sum was all the money he had. He said there was no contract involved in renting the place, and neighbours often did not know each other because of the high turnover rate.

Soco activist Sze Lai-shan said most of the tenants were willing to move out into legal housing - if they could afford it.

Many of the flats breach the building ordinance, land lease agreement and fire safety rules, but the government says it is hard to monitor the situation, let alone control it.

A Buildings Department spokeswoman said: 'Everything happens behind closed doors. The government is not authorised to infringe on private property laws for the sole reason of checking whether there are illegally set-up rooms for rent.'

Sze said: 'If the government cannot control illegal housing from spreading into factory buildings, it should act and convert the land-use of empty factory buildings into feasible housing for the poor to alleviate the problem.'