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Micro-apartments

It’s not just in Sham Shui Po: Hong Kong’s cubicle flats reach the fancy heights of Mid-Levels

Units come with own bathroom, open kitchen and housekeeping, but experts worry over ventilation and fire safety

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 12:23pm

The controversial trend of subdividing flats in space-starved Hong Kong’s tenement buildings into cramped little cubicles has gone upmarket, spreading to one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.

The Sunday Morning Post has found and visited a 2,400 sq ft luxury flat split into five small units for rent in Kam Yuen Mansion on Old Peak Road, in the prime location of Central Mid-Levels.

Property market watchers called it a rare kind of development, while a surveyor expressed concern about ventilation and potential fire hazards in such subdivided flats that might breach building safety regulations.

The Buildings Department is aware of the development and has tried to access the luxury flat several times in the past two years without success. It said it had not found any structural danger at the building and would not consider any further action.

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The five subdivided flats, ranging from 240 sq ft to 656 sq ft, are rented out monthly for HK$25,000 to HK$36,000 each, including utility charges, according to a property agent. The agent said the original flat was renovated two years ago.

A Post reporter was able to look inside one of the subdivided flats on the fifth floor. The 300 sq ft unit, which rents for HK$30,000 a month, has an open kitchen, its own bathroom and a small window opening to a light well. The other four suites were also rented out, a representative of the flat’s management said.

“We provide housekeeping twice a week, including changing the bedsheet once and changing the towels twice,” he said. “There is a complete set of electric appliances, as well as [free] Wi-fi.”

One of the tenants, who is in her 20s and lives alone, said she moved in around June 2015. She worked in the finance industry and it took her about 20 minutes to walk to her office in Central.

“It’s very quiet and safe here,” said the tenant, who asked to remain anonymous. “I like that they provide services, and you don’t have to worry about setting up Wi-fi. You can just pack your bag and move in.”

Midland Realty’s residential division chief executive, Sammy Po Siu-ming, said subdividing luxury flats was unusual.

“I’ve rarely heard of such cases,” Po said.

He suggested the owner might have decided to carve the original luxury flat into several units after finding it difficult to lease the entire home for a large sum.

Online property advertisements show that another flat in the same estate that has not been subdivided rents for HK$100,000 a month.

Po did not expect the trend to pick up because “those who can pay HK$30,000 a month may have better choices lower down in Mid-Levels”.

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Surveyor Vincent Ho Kui-yip, who has also seen the unit, said the open kitchen did not have a smoke detector or sprinkler, which is a violation of the Buildings Ordinance.

The narrow light well outside the single window was also unlikely to meet the minimum requirement of having a 21 square metre area of open space to provide enough natural light and ventilation, Ho said.

It was also unclear if the landlord had obtained an exemption from the Buildings Department to rules requiring toilets to have a window, he added. But he noted that the subdivision work was “decent”.

A search of official building plan records did not turn up any plans related to the subdivision work.

A department spokeswoman said officers were unable to gain access to the flat for inspections in 2015 and last year, and it did not receive any response to letters asking the owner for access.

But she said officers had not found any structural danger to the building or obstruction of emergency exits when inspecting areas outside the flat.

“This case has not been categorised as an actionable case,” she said. “No further action will be considered by the department at this stage.”

Land Registry records showed that the flat was last sold to Kenny Investment Company in 1985 for HK$1.25 million, with public documents stating that the company’s directors were Chan Yin-tap and Landpower Company, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Both Chan and Landpower were listed in the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked offshore company documents. According to a public database of the papers, the registered addresses of Chan and Landpower are that of Eton Properties, the agency letting the subdivided flat.

The Sunday Morning Post made repeated calls to Eton Properties, but an employee would only say that Chan was not in the office and other managers were also not available for comment. The company did not respond to emailed questions.

COMPARISON BETWEEN LUXURY AND MODEST SUBDIVIDED FLATS

3 Old Peak Road subdivided flat:

Location: Mid-Levels, one of the most expensive residential areas in Hong Kong

Building: Well maintainted and managed

Flat: 2,400 sq ft

Subdivided unit sizes: 240 sq ft to 656 sq ft

Monthly rent: HK$25,000 to HK$36,000

Furnishing: Elegantly furnished with window, bed, body-length mirror, bedside table, work desk, chairs, open kitchen and independent bathroom

Household equipment: Fridge, microwave, coffee machine, water heater, bowls and plates, washing machine

Services: Housekeeping twice a week, including changing bed sheets once and changing towels twice, safe box, one parking space

Utilities: Covered by rent, including Wi-fi.

Common subdivided flats:

Location: Less expensive and poorest areas across Hong Kong

Building: Often old and shabby, with or without management

Flat: Vary in size but often under 1,000 sq ft

Subdivided units: Often under 200 sq ft

Monthly rent: Mostly under HK$10,000

Furnishing: Plainly furnished, often without windows, bed or other furniture. Some have no independent bathroom

Household equipment: None in many cases

Services: None

Utilities: Not covered by rent. Often no internet connection