Evicting poor creates moral obligation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am


You break it, you own it. This is where the government finds itself after overzealous building inspectors decided to evict a group of 38 tenants living illegally in partitioned flats in a Tai Kok Tsui industrial building. The tenants, many with families, could not afford high rents and did not want to live like animals in those awful caged homes claimed by thousands of Hong Kong's poorest. So they have leased the illegal units partitioned by cardboard in an industrial building. No doubt there are more people like them living on other industrial sites.

The living conditions are bad, but definitely an improvement from caged units. They also offer more privacy than the communal rooms the government offers as temporary shelter. These poor tenants are not bothering anyone. If the government is kicking them out, it has a moral responsibility to provide housing comparable to - or better than - the state in which they have been living. But the queue for public housing takes years. The tenants deserve better than indefinite communal living.

Inspectors claim the premises are unsafe to live in. More likely, their bureaucratic minds simply refuse to allow people to live on sites zoned for industrial use, even if the buildings have stood empty for years. The government has been woefully slow to convert derelict industrial buildings for community or residential use.

Our officials have no qualms about letting tycoons annex public roads and land adjacent to their palatial estates. New Territories villagers build illegal structures with virtual impunity. Chief executive-wannabe Henry Tang Ying-yen has even proposed letting them build nine-storey houses instead of the legally mandated three storeys.

But when you don't have the backing of the powerful Heung Yee Kuk or the calling card of a tycoon, you are ripe to be picked on by enforcement officers. Sadly, those officers have now trained their guns on those poor tenants.