Balancing public and private interests
The power of government inspectors to break into flats can be problematic in a city where respect for private property rights is a core value. It is a power that is rarely invoked, and ought not to be unless the public interest prevails. A case in point is the break-in into two subdivided flats in a 52-year-old, eight-storey tenement in To Kwa Wan Road, Kowloon City, that has been declared externally and internally dangerous by the Buildings Department.
The subdivision of flats in old buildings to provide accommodation for low-income tenants awaiting public housing - and to maximise the owner's rental income - can raise serious safety issues. The department has been tackling them after the collapse of a heavily partitioned old tenement nearby with the loss of four lives. Previous visits by inspectors to the To Kwa Wan Road building had revealed 51 subdivided flats inside 12 of the 14 flats in the block.
Officials say there was no alternative to using the power under the Buildings Ordinance to break in to the two remaining flats, in the presence of police, to check for unauthorised additions or alterations. Given the proliferation of subdivided dwellings amid rising rents, it is important to strike a balance between private property rights and public safety. Evidence of the need for it is to be found in the results of the department's safety crackdown. Inspectors have visited 48 buildings, entered 104 subdivided flats, and issued 15 demolition orders over illegal structures. It plans to check about 1,300 flats every year.
The presence of the police during forced inspections ensures that the peace is kept, but it would be fairer all round if the balance of public and private interest were clarified by independent scrutiny. It is good therefore that under an amendment to the law expected to be tabled later this year, the government will have to apply to a court for a warrant to enter private premises before making inspections. It would be better still if the impact of the crackdown on housing for the poor were minimised by the provision of more public housing.