Life-saving plan for tenants in time bomb units

Licensing scheme for subdivided flats may be the answer to minimising dangers of living in Hong Kong's deathtrap housing, legislators told

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 5:22am

The ticking bomb of subdivided flats should be tackled by way of a licensing system that will try to minimise their fire and hygiene risks, officials say.

"We can look into the option of licensing as a mid-term solution," Permanent Secretary for Housing Duncan Pescod told the Legislative Council's panel on long-term housing strategy yesterday.

This would help address the dangers inherent in the partitioned units - which are estimated to be on average just 68 sq ft - before the government is able to build enough public housing for low-income people.

He dismissed suggestions of building interim housing to urgently relocate residents because it would take away land for permanent homes. "And not all subdivided flats need to be cleared on safety grounds," he added.

The Long-Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee would discuss the idea, Pescod added.

His comments came after the Legco panel heard that more than 170,000 people were estimated to be living in subdivided flats in the city, according to a study by the University of Hong Kong.

Subdivided homes, generally found in old buildings in high-density urban areas, are typically inhabited by low-income workers and new immigrants because of their convenient locations and low rents.

But poor workmanship means fire hazards are rife, along with flooding and structural defects.

Marco Wu Moon-hoi, a member of the steering committee, said the government should draft a new law with reference to the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance to make licensing possible.

That law says any flat that provides 12 or more bedspaces as rental accommodation must obtain a licence for operation and fulfil building safety and hygiene requirements.

"Without a formal system, it has been a strain on building inspectors because it is difficult for them to enter the premises to check," Wu said.

"We need a law so that owners must apply for a licence before leasing the units, and the licensing authority will have the power to enter the flats upon issuing and renewing the licence."

The proposed law would lay down rules so that a flat should be divided in a way that each unit would have unobstructed access to the fire escape, enough ventilation, and be built with materials that are fire-resistant for a certain time, he suggested.

The requirements would inevitably make the business less lucrative, Wu said, because it would not be possible to divide a typical flat into as many units as three or more if the owner was to comply with the law.

The Legco panel yesterday also received the university's full report on the subdivided flats, which provided more data than previously announced.

The report said out of the 5,900 households interviewed, 32.8 per cent have a monthly household income of HK$15,000 or more. New immigrants account for 35 per cent of residents.