The licensing of guesthouses in private residential buildings has come under the spotlight in the wake of a North Point blaze on Sunday that injured 25 people, many of whom are believed to be budget travellers staying in temporary accommodation.
The concerns arose after a guesthouse on the third floor of the 24-storey Continental Mansion was badly damaged in the fire, which took two hours to put out.
Critics urged the government to give flat owners a say in screening applications for guesthouse licences, after the Home Affairs Department mentioned a little-known policy that granted an operator a licence as long as it met all fire and building safety requirements. Licences can be issued even when guesthouse use breaches the deed of mutual covenant, the agreement between owners governing the use of properties within a building.
Chiu Kin-san, chairwoman of the Continental Mansion owners' corporation, said guesthouses were not allowed anywhere above the third floor under the deed.
Although the affected guesthouse did not breach the deed, she said: "Now [that] one of the guesthouses has burned down … we hope the government can take this opportunity to rectify its mistakes. We want to rid the building of all guesthouses."
But Chung Wing-kwong, senior division officer at the department's Office of the Licensing Authority, said: "The deed … is a private contractual agreement. The government has no power to interpret the terms or how they should be executed."
The blaze hit Continental Mansion, at the corner of King's Road and Cheung Hong Street, at 7.23am and was extinguished at 9.22am. The block was under large-scale renovation and it is believed that construction debris in a back alley caught fire and the flames spread up the bamboo scaffolding and mesh covers surrounding the building.
Last night, three women and one man remained critically injured in hospital. Another four were in a serious condition and six were stable. The rest have been discharged. There is no further information on the injured, such as their nationalities.
Eastern District councillor Frankie Lo Wing-kwan said owners of units in a building should be consulted in guesthouse licence applications.
"What the authorities need to do is to seek the views of the owners' corporation concerned or to request a copy of the deed from it," he said.
Legislator Paul Tse Wai-chun, who is a solicitor, shared a similar view. He noted that building residents could find it a great nuisance if strangers often went in and out of their block.
Another lawyer, Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun, suggested that owners' corporations apply for a court injunction to stop property uses that were banned by the deed.
"It is easier and more efficient, instead of relying on the government to review its policy."
Leung Sang, who lives in Continental Mansion, wanted the government to play a more active role, such as denying licences to guesthouses that breached the deed. "It only told the owners' corporation to sue the operators, but there's no money," he said.
Sam Lau, chairman of the Tourist Guest Houses Federation of Hong Kong said he believed the city had more unlicensed than licensed guesthouses.
Between January and November, the department conducted 9,435 on-site inspections of guesthouses, compared with 3,125 in 2011. Prosecutions also rose to 161 cases, from 53 in 2011.