Enforce safety law on subdivided flats
The fire at a Mong Kok market in November, which left nine people dead after spreading to six blocks of flats, has prompted a crash programme of safety inspections by the Buildings Department of 339 similar buildings at markets across the city. Less than halfway through the task, the results are alarming, with 11 of 157 mixed-use buildings - or 7 per cent - mainly in the Sham Shui Po and Yau Tsim Mong districts, being described by the Fire Services Department as potential death traps.
The inspections were targeted at fire hazards and illegal building works involving subdivided flats, which often violate fire safety or building standards and were a factor in another eight deaths last year from a fire and the collapse of an old building. In the latest tragedy, the nine victims were found collapsed on a staircase shared by two eight-storey buildings where seven of the 14 flats had been subdivided into tiny dwellings. The fire hazards identified in 11 more buildings so far involved obstructed escape routes.
Unfortunately, these potential death traps remain attractive to low-income people who cannot afford anything better in the private market. An inadequate supply of public housing and rising rents have meant that demand for them is unlikely to wane. Indeed, some agents have tried to cash in on the tight market by packaging subdivided flats as chic living for young adults. As the government has pointed out, well-partitioned flats have a role to play in easing the housing shortage so long as they meet building and fire safety standards.
If a ban on subdivided flats is not the answer, the only alternative is to step up enforcement of safety standards. The Fire Services Department says fire hazard abatement notices have been issued requesting owners and tenants in the 11 buildings to make improvements and comply with the law or face prosecution. Since subdivided flats will probably remain part of the housing market for the foreseeable future, we trust for the sake of people's safety that this is not an empty threat.