Hong Kong housing

Specific law needed to tackle Hong Kong subdivided flats like in New York, City University researchers say

Study authors call on government to up fines and pass targeted legislation on building conversions to tackle the safety hazards of tiny illegal homes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 7:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 10:14pm

Tougher punishments for subdividing flats into tiny homes are needed to tackle the safety hazards such projects bring, a study by City University has recommended.

Researchers called on the government to provide more flats to temporarily accommodate tenants facing displacement after their subdivided units are dismantled on the orders of enforcement officers.

The study, conducted between December last year and March, interviewed 150 construction and property management professionals, district councillors, social workers and neighbours of tenants in subdivided flats, asking them to rate a list of 16 proposals to enhance the identification and regulation of subdivided flats.

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Raising penalties was rated the most necessary measure and one of the most practical solutions.

Dr Simon Yau Yung, associate professor of the university’s department of public policy, which conducted the survey, said most respondents believed the current penalties were not enough to deter people from subdividing flats.

Yau said subdivision was deemed minor work under the Building (Minor Works) Regulation section of the Buildings Ordinance, which prescribes a maximum penalty of only HK$50,000. He said respondents believed a higher penalty or even a separate law on subdivided flats should be considered.

“The most ideal solution is to set up a separate law specifically on building conversion because it would make enforcement easier,” Yau said, citing New York City as an example, where illegal flat conversions could lead to a fine of US$15,000 (HK$116,348) for each unit subdivided.

Based on the ratings given to the 16 proposals, the research team suggested the government set up clear guidelines for officials on the use of statutory power to enter premises for inspection, to make it easier for officers to conduct regular patrols.

The team also recommended setting up a cross-departmental task force to handle subdivided flats, and creating a database of buildings with such units in them.

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But enhancing enforcement could see the displacement of many tenants who are often forced to rent the tiny units due to economic difficulties.

Yau said the government should develop more temporary flats or make better use of empty flats the Urban Renewal Authority had acquired for redevelopment to house these people.

“Relocation is a tough issue,” Yau said. “But subdivided flats have created risks for buildings, tenants and firefighters. The problem needs to be tackled for public safety.”

In the study, proposals to criminalise and dismantle subdivided flats, make the disclosure of any by owners compulsory and establish a public information system on the number and distribution of such flats, were rated the least necessary and practical.

The survey only covered commercial and residential buildings.

The government plans to criminalise subdividing industrial building units. A draft recommendation is expected to be submitted to the Legislative Council before July next year.

Almost 200,000 people were living in 88,000 subdivided flats last year, according to the Census and Statistics Department. In addition, an estimated 10,000 people were living illegally in industrial buildings or in rural areas.