Housing problem an issue of supply

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am

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The risk of living in cubicles subdivided from already small flats has become a matter of growing concern in Hong Kong in recent years. Although a deadly fire in June and the collapse of an old building with such flats last year took eight lives, these potential death traps continue to draw low-income earners who cannot afford better accommodation in the private market. Since then our government has pledged to step up enforcement for flats in breach of safety rules. But the situation still leaves a lot to be desired.

Sadly, it has taken another fatal blaze - this time nine killed in Mong Kok - to draw attention to the widespread problem again. Despite recent efforts by some agents to package subdivided flats as chic living for young adults, many remain rundown and overcrowded, with structural alterations that violate fire safety or building standards. Without proper sewerage or water supply, they can also be an environmental nuisance.

But inadequate supply of public housing and rising rents mean demand for these dwellings will remain strong. Many in the queue for government-subsidised rental housing have little choice but to live in poor conditions. As the development minister has pointed out, flats that have been partitioned well can ease the housing shortage as long as they meet safety requirements. A ban is therefore not the answer.

That leaves no alternative but to step up enforcement against the illegal ones. But inspections may be difficult if property owners refuse to co-operate. While private property rights must be respected, safety must not be compromised. A proposal that court orders could be obtained to allow inspectors to force entry to subdivided flats when necessary makes sense, as long as there are sufficient safeguards to ensure it is not abused.

Subdivided flats will probably remain part of our housing market while better accommodation remains unaffordable to people on low incomes. Adequate public housing supply is the ultimate solution.