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Hong Kong housing

‘Crackdown on illegal cubicle flats in Hong Kong industrial buildings could leave thousands on streets’

Group that helps underprivileged warns that government’s transit centre has just 400 bed spaces while 10,000 could be affected by safety drive in wake of deadly fire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 10:44pm

A government plan to criminalise landlords operating illegal cubicle flats in industrial buildings could leave thousands without homes if authorities fail to lay down a comprehensive resettlement plan, a leading concern group said.

Its warning came after three government departments failed to say how many people were living illegally in the city’s 1,900 industrial buildings, and whether there was a detailed plan for finding them new accommodation, despite the Post’s repeated inquiries.

But in an interview with the Post, the Society for Community Organisation said the government could not afford to rely on existing policy when up to 10,000 residents could be affected, and only 400 bed spaces were available at Po Tin transit centre in Tuen Mun, which takes in displaced residents for three months as a result of natural disasters or government enforcement.

A bill is expected to be submitted for lawmakers’ approval in the coming legislative session, which starts on October 1.

“It’s all talk. Their offer isn’t even a real offer,” Sze Lai-shan, a social worker with the non-profit SoCO, said. “Those who have lived there told me it’s like a refugee camp – cramped, humid and with poor ventilation.”

The organisation based the figures on its frontline work in the past four years in over 10 districts.

After a fire at a mini-storage facility in Ngau Tau Kok in June killed two firemen, Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po pledged to crack down on illegal flats in industrial buildings by possibly terminating leases and imposing tougher penalties on landlords.

Although the government has been trying to clear out illegal homes since 2012, only 27 people have been convicted and fined due to the difficulty of entering private premises without a warrant.

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The problem highlights a predicament in the city, where properties are unaffordable and residents face a four-year wait for public housing and mounting rents in the private sector. Affected residents would have no real option if they were being forced out on the streets.

The government also did not say whether it planned to survey how many were living illegally in industrial buildings, a widespread phenomenon that has sprung up in the wake of the skyrocketing rents and a changing economic landscape that forced factories to relocate across the border.

SoCO said most working class residents would turn down the offer of living in the transit centre, given its distance from urban areas and poor living environment.

Sze said the government had dealt with similar circumstances before in the 1990s when thousands of cage home dwellers were forced out of their homes due to a new licensing legislation.

Hong Kong officials to start crackdown on unauthorised premises in industrial buildings in wake of two fires

“The legislation was introduced in 1994, but the law wasn’t enacted until 1998 so the government had a four-year grace period to resettle these people properly,” Sze said.

During those four years, the government built a hostel for single people and bought 26 private flats – enough to house nearly 1,000 people, Sze said.

Professor Chau Kwong-wing, an expert in housing policy at the University of Hong Kong, said authorities should consider freeing up the government’s latest subsidised flats to cut short the waiting list for public housing applicants.

Chau explained that 857 flats at San Po Kong, the first batch of subsidised flats only open to public housing tenants, would be immediately available for use, as well as sustainable in the long run since it would add to the government’s stock of public housing.

“The better-off public housing tenants may not be wealthy, but people on the waiting list should have priority in being looked after by the government,” Chau said.