Tighter regulations will force Hong Kong's smaller care homes to close

Tighter regulations for private homes could see many close as renovation costs and land-use rules stop them complying with licence rules

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 9:33am

More than 50 disabled people could find themselves without a home or adapting to life in a new hostel by mid-year as tough new care home regulations take hold.

And about one third of the city's 78 private care homes for the disabled could face closure in a year's time under new licensing rules, operators warned.

The latest government figures showed that more than 50 people living in eight private hostels were under immediate threat and would have to find new homes as their institutions had yet to apply for a licence that certified the homes met service and safety standards.

They had also not applied for a temporary exemption, as required by law, to continue their businesses after June 10.

Only eight private homes held licences as of April 1, although most of the rules had been in force since November 18, 2011. However, some had applied for exemptions.

The 18-month grace period, which allowed all private and subsidised hostels to apply for licences, ends on June 10, meaning that those without a licence or an exemption would have to shut down or face penalties.

The Social Welfare Department was processing applications for either a licence or an exemption from 34 of the city's 316 government-subvented and private care homes.

"At least one-third [of private homes] might close down [when their temporary exemptions expire]," said Joe Li Wing-yiu, chairman of the Private Hostel for Rehabilitation Association. "It is a very conservative estimate … Small hostels have already found it hard to survive."

About half of the private homes had fewer than 40 clients, said Li, whose group represents some 80 per cent of the private homes.

Commissioner for Rehabilitation Stephen Sui Wai-keung said exemptions generally lasted 12 to 18 months. Sui told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Social Welfare Department would see whether the homes were taking concrete action to comply with the licensing rules when considering exemption renewals.

He added that, as far as they knew, the operators of the hostels that had yet to apply to continue business had already planned to relocate their residents to other private homes.

Li attributed the threat of closure to the licensing rules requiring operators to ensure their land use was in line with the land lease conditions and zoning plans, and the fact premises had to meet legal standards on design, fire safety, building and floor space for each resident.

"Such renovations will incur huge costs," he said. "But private homes can hardly expect a good return from their investments as it is unlikely they will be able to raise residence fees.

"Many of the residents have no ability to work and live on welfare."

Li said more than 90 per cent of residents in private homes relied on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance payments.

Council for Social Service rehabilitation service chief officer Eddie Suen Kwok-tung said upgrading facilities would be tough for many of the smaller private homes, with lack of space being one of the biggest obstacles.

"It's true that a lot of [care homes] are behind, especially in their facilities, as many were established many years ago," he said. It was understandable that private homes needed to be regulated for the sake of users, he said, but he also criticised the government for allowing the wait for places in subvented care homes to have got so out of hand.

A spokesman for the Social Welfare Department said with HK$39 million funding from the Lotteries Fund, the department would subsidise the work needed on private homes, capped at 60 per cent of the costs.

Two applications had been received and were being processed. Similar subsidies were also offered to subvented and self-financing care homes.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo