Hong Kong housing

Three years after explosion at Hong Kong garage, displaced residents seek help to fix their homes

Owners at Wong Tai Sin building appeal to government bodies to waive repair fees or offer subsidies to help make it habitable again

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 9:01am

More than three years after a deadly explosion at a Wong Tai Sin garage, property owners in the building above it are still in the arduous process of fixing up the place where they used to live and work.

The severe damage to Wing On House was estimated to cost millions of dollars to repair. And owners in the six-storey building, mostly elderly, said they hoped the Buildings Department, having done much of the repair work, could cover the cost.

“I hope the Buildings Department ... will understand our miserable situation and exempt us from paying the maintenance cost,” 74-year-old Lam Chan Choi-heung said, speaking in one of her two flats in the building. The ceiling and walls of the flat, where she lived for more than 20 years before the explosion, were still stained black by smoke.

“Now it seems like we were beaten up and became handicapped but we needed to pay for our own medical costs,” she said.

The misfortune began in April 2015, when an explosion – the cause of which has yet to be fully identified – happened in a garage on the ground floor of the six-storey building, on Wan Fung Street. Three people were killed and nine others were injured. A mechanic who worked at the garage, and was allegedly involved in the explosion, will stand trial on manslaughter charges in October.

The building has been uninhabitable since, and Lam said she had been staying with her son.

She said owners of the 10 residential flats and four ground-floor stores of the building had already split the cost of an urgent HK$230,000 (US$30,000) project by the department shortly after the accident.

Between August 2016 and April 2017, the department did another round of maintenance work, including fixes to outside walls, smoke doors and banisters, which the owners will have to pay for. The department said that, while it was still calculating the cost, it estimated it would be more than HK$1 million.

While still waiting for the department to give them the exact bill, owners already knew that they had to share the cost of another HK$1.12 million for other repairs such as the installation of electrical and water systems, as well as waterproofing. To help cover the cost of this project, owners applied for a subsidy from a scheme for common area repairs under the Urban Renewal Authority (URA). The subsidy is generally capped at HK$150,000 for buildings with 20 or fewer units.

Apart from hoping for an exemption from maintenance costs from the department, Lam hoped the URA could give affected owners a larger subsidy.

“Our works are different from other general maintenance,” she said. “Everything had to be fixed from scratch.”

On top of fixing the building’s public facilities, individual owners might need to reserve hundreds of thousands dollars to renovate the interior of each flat.

Financial and emotional burdens weigh heavily on Ng Kin-yuen, 68, who used to run a glass store on the building’s ground floor.

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His wife was among the three people killed in the explosion. But because the trial to determine the cause of her death has not started, he still has not received her death certificate. Without that, he said, he cannot access money in the pair’s joint bank account.

“All my assets and money are gone because of the fire ... even [my wife] is gone,” Ng, who has been staying at a flat nearby, said. “I feel uncertain for my future.”

Lawmaker Roy Kwong Chun-yu, who has been helping the owners with their plight, called for the authorities to handle their cases in “a humane way”.

The Buildings Department said owners at Wing On House who needed financial assistance could consider applying to its Building Safety Loan Scheme, which provides low-interest or interest-free loans. Older owners could also apply to the Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners, managed by the Housing Society.

The URA said it understood the owners’ difficult situation.

“[The URA] has all along tried to offer them as much assistance as we can,” a spokeswoman said.