Inspections a must for factory 'homes'
Soaring rents and inadequate housing supply are forcing poor people into tiny dwellings in illegally subdivided old factory buildings. The Society for Community Organisation says there are up to 20 of these buildings in the old industrial areas of Kwun Tong, Tai Kok Tsui and San Po Kong, which offer cheaper accommodation than subdivided flats in old residential buildings but are even more dangerous. This is a worry, considering that a structural collapse last year and a fire last month in old residential buildings with subdivided flats each took four lives. There are concerns about renovations that compromise structural integrity and poor fire safety. Indeed, building safety and fire safety go hand in hand.
Although these conversions of industrial buildings and subdivisions are unlawful, officials say the government has difficulty inspecting premises because of private property rights. As we have reported, this has not stopped the South China Morning Post inspecting two buildings in Tai Kok Tsui that are restricted to industrial purposes. Our reporter found one had a floor divided into three levels connected by flimsy wooden stairs and partitioned into 35 to 40 rooms, housing 40 to 50 people in an area designated for 36 factory workers. Inside the rooms, all electrical wiring was stapled to the walls and exposed.
The Development Bureau has produced legislation to upgrade safety in old residential buildings. New measures would include empowering officials to enter flats for inspections and regulation of subdivision of flats to ensure it is done by qualified contractors. So long as low-income earners cannot afford decent accommodation, there will be a market for residential subdivision of industrial buildings. This creates an enforcement dilemma because these buildings are not expected to meet residential safety standards. However, concerns about fire safety ought to be a good enough reason to inspect premises and enforce minimum standards. Private property rights notwithstanding, the government must find a way to ensure that safety is not jeopardised for profit.