Dangerous flats here to stay
Olga Wong and Jennifer Ngo
There's endless demand for them, they're fire traps and the government has no idea how many there really are throughout the city.
Subdivided flats, the cheap, tiny housing units that have repeatedly been linked to deadly infernos, have mushroomed across Hong Kong despite efforts by the Buildings Department to step up inspections and broaden the scope of regulations.
But instead of just targeting building safety problems in the death traps, some analysts suggest the government should review its ineffective housing policy.
Even with their fire risks, the partitioned apartments are incredibly popular with renters.
'Our company has a few flats on Fa Yuen Street that are subdivided into more than 10 units with their own washrooms. But they are all rented out now,' an agent at a small real-estate company said.
The agent said the units on Fa Yuen Street, the site of Wednesday's fire in which nine people died, were very popular because they were cheap and close to the MTR.
She said that, for example, a 120 sq ft unit on the sixth floor of a tenement building in the area cost about HK$3,000 a month to rent, while a similar flat in a building with a lift cost HK$4,000.
The subdivided flats are also promoted as profitable investments for buyers. One advertisement on the company's website highlights the 'high rental income' awaiting the buyer of a Sham Shui Po flat that has been chopped up into five units. Some agents even go to the trouble of including video footage of unit interiors in their ads. Footage could still be seen yesterday of one unit on the sixth floor of 190-194 Fa Yuen Street, where all the bodies from Wednesday's fire were found.
Chan Siu-ming of the Society for Community Organisation said he had noticed a dramatic increase in such accommodation in the past two years. 'Things are changing so fast that a flat was subdivided into five between my first and second visit to the same tenement building,' he said.
Chan said the people living in the units came from diverse backgrounds. While many were from the sandwich class - those who did not qualify for public housing and could not afford private flats - some were young people wanting to move out of home and single people looking to cut down on their commute.
In response to the wider prevalence of this housing, the Buildings Department launched a special operation in April to inspect 150 buildings each year, covering about 1,300 subdivided flats. By July, the department had inspected 48 buildings comprising 104 subunits. In one case, inspectors discovered an eight-storey building in To Kwa Wan had 51 units carved out of 12 original flats. More importantly, most of them had blocked fire-escape stairwells.
Apart from inspections, the Development Bureau has proposed widening the coverage of existing building regulations that require owners to hire professionals to carry out works relating to flat subdivisions, including alterations to partition walls and fire-escape routes. The amended rule is expected to be passed by lawmakers early next year.
'Still, these changes to building plans do not require approval from the department. Illegal changes will only be discovered by inspections or through complaints from the public,' building surveyor Vincent Ho Kui-yip said.
Engineers suggested that blocked staircases were a major factor in the nine deaths on Fa Yuen Street.
Fire survivor Lau Kwan, who lived on the third floor at 196 Fa Yuen Street, said yesterday that she did not even know that there was a second staircase until her landlord told her and got the keys to unlock it.
'The door was chained up and blocked by stacks of things,' Lau said. The back staircase was only accessible through her two-room unit.
Juanita Dela Cruz, a resident living in 190-194 Fa Yuen Street, said she didn't know the building had a second stairway. She was trapped in a subdivided unit and had to be rescued by firefighters. 'I don't think there is a back staircase. If there is, it's not connected to our room.'
Despite the tragedy and the government's renewed efforts, community organiser Chan said people forced out of such units would just move to ones in other districts. 'Unless the government reviews the existing policy, the situation won't improve, as these flats are still the cheapest in the city,' he said.
He urged the government to increase public housing in the long run and to provide resettlement options to those to be forced out by the department's demolition orders.
Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors and a City University real estate professor, said flat subdivisions not only raised building-safety issues.
'Private flats are just unaffordable for many Hongkongers,' he said, 'The city requires a more effective housing policy.'
He said the changing social environment had given rise to a group of young people desperate for an affordable place to live.
'They are educated. But given the limited upward mobility, they have low salaries for years.'
Poon suggested the government develop public housing targeted at the needs of this group.
'The government can require them to pay a higher rent [than for the subdivided flats] while lowering the threshold for them to apply for public flats.'
Blueprint for disaster
Siu Yip Building 183-189
Affected by smoke from fire - some residents escaped to roof and climbed to neighbouring building
Wah Mei Building 191-197
Resident living on eighth floor heard argument in street below around 4.30am. He said building was affected by smoke but didn?t catch fire
196 and 198
Owners had been ordered to repair loose and defective window frames by this month but not known if work done. Authorities said liable to become dangerous if not
192 and 194
Worst affected. Contains flats around 600 sq ft, with some divided into smaller cubicles, which blocked off access to one of two staircases for some residents
188 and 190
10 residents of fifth floor trapped on roof for two hours before being rescued. Owners had also been asked to carry out maintenance work to avoid building becoming dangerous
Stalls under 183-197
Caught fire at the same time as other stalls further down street. Owners store goods on lower floors of buildings, sometimes blocking stairs
Stalls under 188-198
Initial call to emergency services reported fire in stalls outside building
Source: Buildings Department