Hong Kong housing

Tearing down buildings is not best strategy, says chief of Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority

Wai Chi-sing says that with a good maintenance plan in place Hong Kong wouldn’t have had to pull down 1,000 buildings in past decade

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2018, 8:01am

With frequent maintenance, buildings in Hong Kong constructed with steel-reinforced concrete could have an extended lease of life of up to 100 years, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) chief said.

Instead, apartment blocks are being torn down at the 50 to 60 year mark, by which time they look grimy and dilapidated.

“If Hong Kong at an early stage had a good maintenance strategy in place, we wouldn’t have had to tear down some 1,000 buildings in the past decade or so,” URA managing director Wai Chi-sing said on Saturday.

“This problem needs to be seriously dealt with … instead of having to tear down lots of buildings within a short period of time like we are doing today,” he told government broadcaster RTHK.

The city is facing a rapidly ageing stock, with 326,000 private flats over the age of 70 by 2046. This would be 300 times more than the situation today, according to the government’s planning blueprint.

Old private flats will be concentrated in urban areas, such as Yau Tsim Mong district, where more than 60,000 units will be over the age of 70. It also has to grapple with a rising amount of construction waste.

Simon Yau Yung, an associate professor at City University specialising in housing policy and management, said developers currently had huge economic incentives to rebuild. One reason was rising property prices, and they could charge more for new flats.

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Also, he added: “When developers see that the development potential has not been fully utilised, it makes much more sense for them to tear it down so they can build higher and earn more money.”

Yau said that buildings tend to start to show signs of ageing when they are 20 years old, when frequent inspections and repairs should be made to exterior walls, drain pipes and steel bar structures.

Depending on the building’s condition, repair works should be carried out every five to 10 years such as making sure external wall finishes are intact so as to prevent water seepage.

Experts say the problem of poor maintenance and neglect centred around single-block buildings that do not have an owners’ corporation, an independent body that acts legally on behalf of all owners to manage and maintain common areas.

Unlike in Singapore or the United States, it is also not mandatory for owners to set up maintenance reserves, funds used to finance building repairs and maintenance.

Only a third of 3,000 owner representatives of private buildings had set up the fund, according to a survey the URA conducted last year. Of those that did set up a fund, the contributions from owners were a relatively low amount or given irregularly, it said.

This meant that owners were often unprepared when they realised they did not have enough money to pay for maintenance fees, making it difficult to collect fees in a short time. In the worst-case scenario, maintenance and repair works would be put aside because of funding difficulties, causing building conditions to further deteriorate at a quicker pace.

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While the department can order owners of older residential and mixed-use buildings to rectify conditions, there is a low compliance rate, it said earlier this year.

Yau suggested that the government could consider stipulating in the land sale condition for owners to set up a mandatory maintenance reserve requiring them to regularly contribute a certain amount to the fund for future maintenance works

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her maiden policy address last year earmarked HK$3 billion (US$384.6 million) for “Operation Building Bright 2.0”, a scheme to provide subsidies for property owners of higher risk buildings to conduct necessary inspection and repair works.

It is expected that about 2,500 buildings will benefit from this initiative in the next four years.