Teresa Cheng

Home improvements should not be illegal in Hong Kong – renovate the rules on illegal structures instead

Philip Yeung says illegal structures in Hong Kong are common, given the high cost of land. It’s time to review the regulations on home improvements and restrict only renovations that endanger public safety or encroach on public land

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 7:50pm

Sooner or later, every property owner in Hong Kong will be tarred and feathered. It’s just a matter of when they get caught. I am referring to the prevalence of illegal structures in the city. The government is frantically trying to put the issue to bed before it claims the scalp of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah. Like it or not, political scandals on illegal structures are a unique local phenomenon. I call it the Hong Kong syndrome.

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Elsewhere, improvement of a detached residence is nobody’s business. It is even considered a virtue, proof positive of pride in home ownership, that you are not a speculator who flips the property for a quick profit. In Canada, patios and other alterations are routinely added without a building permit. The practice of improving one’s home is so widespread that many downmarket properties are openly advertised as “handyman’s specials”, beloved by people who have the home improvement itch – all without bureaucratic entanglements.

If you ask any homeowner ensnared by the building code whether they feel any moral guilt, from Henry Tang Ying-yen whose candidacy for chief executive was derailed by the discovery of illegal structures in his home to Leung Chun-ying, his victorious opponent, they may acknowledge the public embarrassment, but not any ethical blemish. That’s why the embattled secretary for justice can sincerely declare that her integrity is intact.

The simple truth is that improving your home illegally may violate the city’s building by-laws, but they are not offences involving moral turpitude, unlike stealing, or cheating on your wife. To non-homeowners, having illegal structures may even be a status symbol, a sure sign that you have made it in the world. Public figures, of whatever political stripe, should not feel safe or morally superior. Just ask opposition politician Paul Zimmerman, who pre-emptively confessed to his sins.

Land is so prohibitively expensive in Hong Kong that all homeowners want to maximise their living space within their allotted footage. If the law is more honoured in its breach than in its observance, it is time to think outside the legal box.

Are our building permit application procedures for home alterations too cumbersome, time-consuming or excessively harsh? Are some of the rules even necessary, especially when they involve childproofing a place or securing it against home invasion? The government’s current headache may do us a lot of good if it leads to cutting the red tape and depoliticising it for future political appointees.

Another pragmatic question cries out for consideration: of what good is the removal of illegal structures? The only happy customer is the renovator. Unless they endanger public safety or encroach on public land, dismantling illegal structures yields zero public benefit. It merely overburdens the near-capacity landfills.

The secretary for justice must be heartbroken to see her beautifully and expensively built private cinema, band room and wine cellar demolished. Wouldn’t it have been far more sensible to slap a penalty on her illegal extensions, while giving her the option of keeping them subject to property re-evaluation and paying higher property taxes?

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Thus, all illegal structures, save those that breach safety and encroachment laws, should be given retroactive approval at a cost. These payments and penalties should then be funnelled into a fund for low-income renters. Robbing Peter to pay Paul will defuse the explosive issue and simmering public outrage.

A bad law invites contravention or circumvention. You either repeal it, amend it or allow retroactive compliance. Redemption trumps demolition, any time. That is good governance. Surely, our secretary for justice now knows this better than anyone.

Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. [email protected]