The deadly blaze that claimed nine lives in a Mong Kok building last November rang an alarm bell about the safety of tens of thousands of subdivided flats in the city. Eight months later, however, the tragedy appears to have been largely forgotten.
Recent inspections at the scene on Fa Yuen Street revealed that some fire exits are still blocked. Several of the renovated flats have been illegally carved up into self-contained units for lease. It is shocking to see the potential death traps re-emerging. More disturbing, however, is the attitude of the tenants. They did not seem to be worried about the fire hazards at all.
Of the seven enforcement orders issued to landlords on the premises since November, only two have been rectified in the allotted time. But the Buildings Department has yet to prosecute those who failed to take action. Fire safety is also disappointing, with one of the fire exits walled up. The non-compliance is actually unsurprising. At present, offenders are usually not prosecuted as long as they rectify the problems when challenged by law enforcers. The situation underlines the need for tough enforcement and perhaps heavier penalties.
That said, it is unrealistic to expect the department's limited manpower to cope with tens of thousands of subdivided units across the territory. The problem goes back to an inadequate supply of affordable housing. No one will go against common sense to live in a death trap if there is a choice. That subdivided flats have quickly returned to the fire-damaged building is indeed a sad phenomenon. It shows that demand for potentially unsafe accommodation remains high. Arguably, there should be no problem if the partitions are made without breaching the relevant building and fire safety rules. But scrupulous landlords remain in the minority. As long as there is such demand, the problem is unlikely to go away.
The loss of nine lives in the Fa Yuen Street blaze is a painful reminder about the urgent need to improve fire safety. We should not wait until another tragedy occurs.