Regulation plan mooted for Hong Kong's subdivided flats

Split apartments could be regulated under a proposed safety scheme, but critic says it’s unrealistic and landlord threatens evictions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 8:07am

A licensing scheme to regulate subdivided flats - home to tens of thousands of the city's poorest people - is desirable, even if it reduces housing supply and raises rents, the housing minister says.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, the transport and housing secretary, proposed in a 10-year plan yesterday that his bureau study the feasibility of a licensing or landlord registration system to "regulate the safety and hygiene conditions of subdivided units".

He said more enforcement action should be taken on flats that were in breach of building or fire regulations.

That announcement has already prompted a vow from one landlord renting out subdivided flats to evict his tenants and get out of the business if any new standards were too high and remedial work too costly.

A study by the Transport and Housing Bureau released in May identified almost 67,000 subdivided flats in 1,860 buildings aged 25 years or above. It put the number of residents at 171,000.

Cheung admitted his policy could cause problems for tenants in subdivided accommodation.

"Any regulation would, of course, be regarded as an increase in costs," Cheung said. "Depending on the scope of regulations, supply and thereby rents [may be] affected."

The minister meanwhile dismissed suggestions that rent assistance or rent control schemes should be introduced, saying they would be "counterproductive by driving up rents".

Cheung suggested more interim housing be provided for people forced out of subdivided flats due to redevelopment, and that public rental housing should be "the primary solution" for tenants of subdivided units.

Chan Wah-keung, owner of a subdivided block in Kwun Tong that houses dozens of people, said he may shut up shop if the licensing scheme is burdensome.

"For many old buildings, the building requirements then were very different from those adopted now," he said.

The government should be "flexible" with owners of older buildings, Chan said. "A few months of preparation is definitely not enough."

Chan said Cheung's focus on "hygiene" also sounded vague.

"My next move depends on what the government does. If a lot of investment is required, I may consider changing my business from subdivided flats to homes for the elderly or hostels."

Sze Lai-shan of the Society for Community Organisation called the licensing scheme "absolutely unrealistic".

"We're talking about tens of thousands of subdivided units," she said, comparing it to the government's four-year move just to clear hundreds of beds in cage homes in the 1990s.

She said many residents could be made homeless if the proposed programme went ahead.

Sze proposed that existing subdivided flats be exempted from the new requirements, which should apply only to flats built from now on.