Hong Kong's subdivided flats have been roundly criticised for so long that one would have thought the administration should have a comprehensive solution by now. After 11 months of study, an option has been tabled for further discussion. The flats, instead of being phased out, may be allowed to continue under a proposed licensing system. This is among dozens of proposals by an advisory panel on housing needs over the next 10 years.
With an estimated 171,000 people living in such units, a licensing system to "legitimise" the better ones does not come as a surprise. The government is understandably caught in a dilemma. Even if officials have the political will to outlaw them, rehousing such a big group is not easy. If the target of 470,000 new flats in the coming decade is already difficult to achieve, a crackdown on subdivided flats would render many people homeless and pose a greater challenge. The advisers are actually divided on whether licensing is the right way to go. Housing officials are also said to have reservations. The lack of consensus underlines the housing conundrum in Hong Kong.
The licensing system idea is raised in good faith. Previous moves to license unauthorised budget guesthouses and "caged homes" - bed spaces in rundown blocks - proved that the problems can be resolved by proper regulation. But what sets subdivided flats apart is the quantity and enforcement.
Fire and building laws prohibit partitions that jeopardise safety and environmental hygiene. But the proliferation of these flats means existing enforcement manpower can never cope with the workload. The plan to crack down on illegal structures in the New Territories is already facing similar difficulties. Given there are tens of thousands of illegally carved up units across the city, introducing a new layer of bureaucracy to clean up the problem is unrealistic.
Even if licensing is to be made an interim measure, determining which flats are approved will be difficult. Adopting less stringent standards, so that many units can continue to operate, effectively compromises safety and hygiene. But if the new regime is too tough, substantial numbers of units will go under. Not only will this push up the rents of the licensed flats, but thousands of people may become homeless as a result.
It would be a shame if subdivided flats were to stay indefinitely. Decent and affordable housing should remain our long-term goal.