In the wake of the fire at a 30-year-old building in Kwun Tong which killed four people and injured nine last Wednesday, the Government is considering mandating the establishment of a building management body by the owners of every private building. The proposal is a belated recognition of the fact that merely having stringent safety rules is not enough to prevent the outbreak of tragic fires. Passing the rules is easy; getting them enforced and complied with is hard. A mechanism is needed to pull owners together to act on problems afflicting the buildings in which they live. Yet, if last week's fire at On Hing Building is any guide, then not even the establishment of an owners' corporation will be sufficient to enhance the quality of building management. On Hing was completed in 1967. With the help of the local district office, an owners' corporation was formed in 1996. But the chairman soon found the work of communicating with other owners and getting their consent, let alone money, to get things done very frustrating. Most owners were apathetic. Meetings often had to be aborted because of the lack of a quorum. Eventually, the chairman sold his flat and moved out. A long-time resident recalled that about 20 years ago, residents could not agree to improve the building's security by installing an electrically controlled iron door, which cost just over $100 per household, at the entrance. Such apathy is not uncommon in Hong Kong. In theory, owners have every reason to be keenly interested in maintaining the state of their properties in order to preserve their value. In practice, while they are prepared to spend enormous sums to decorate the interiors of their flats, they are not so forthright in spending even modest sums to maintain common areas or facilities of the building they co-own with others. Residential mobility is so high in Hong Kong that many owners are not motivated to make an effort to improve the state of the building in which they have a stake at a particular time. This is because they can easily sell out and buy a better flat in a newer building. In the case of buildings where there are many absentee landlords, finding enough owner-occupiers who qualify and care to improve the building's lot is even more difficult. For 20 years, the Home Affairs Department, which has offices in every district, has dedicated teams of community organisers, liaison officers and building management professionals to help residents form owners' co-operatives or mutual aid committees. Despite their efforts, only about 5,000 co-operatives have been formed, even though there are more than 80,000 buildings in Hong Kong. Most are in newer buildings which have proper management frameworks put in place by developers. In older buildings, management remains a serious problem. Apathy on the part of most residents is one factor. Lack of skill, time or ability among many residents, who are more likely to be working class people with a hard time making a living, is another. The Government now proposes to mandate the establishment of an owners' co-operative in every building. Basically, it means owners will be compelled to form an association to manage their properties. Whether the proposal is an infringement of private property rights or a breach of the Bill of Rights' provision on freedom of association are interesting legal issues. However, most people probably agree government intervention is needed to ensure owners take good care of their properties to ensure the safety of themselves and others who might be harmed as a result of their negligence. Although the proposal has been prompted by a calamitous fire, its implementation is also a key to the success of other measures aimed at improving building management, such as the mandatory building inspection scheme championed by the Buildings Department. To make the proposal a success, a host of issues will need to be thought through. The case of On Hing shows a owners' co-operative can be rendered ineffective if owners refuse to participate in its work. Should they be subject to some kind of sanction, such as a fine? On the other hand, those owners who offer their time and energy to become office-bearers should be properly remunerated. Professional advice also needs to be made readily available to prevent them making innocent mistakes which could land themselves or all the owners in great difficulties. For example, the owners of a building in Yau Ma Tei were recently slapped with a multimillion-dollar bill by a court which ruled that they had to compensate a worker who sustained serious injuries while working on the building. The owners' co-operative had no insurance. As an incentive to encourage owners to band together, it has been suggested that those who have formed a co-operative should be allowed to channel a proportion of the rates or rent payable to the Government into a building management fund to finance major repair or maintenance work. In the late 1950s, in a bid to encourage the private sector to address a serious housing shortage, the Government allowed the sale of apartments in multi-storey buildings without first developing proper legislation on building management or re-development. As a result, Hong Kong now faces the twin problem of urban renewal and poor building management. A determined effort is needed to address this problem to prevent the further loss of life and to improve housing conditions of residents in multi-storey buildings.