18 February 2019
Subdivided flat tenants urge the government to offer them shelter before evicting them for violation of the Building Ordinance. Photo: HKEJ
Subdivided flat tenants urge the government to offer them shelter before evicting them for violation of the Building Ordinance. Photo: HKEJ

Why subdivided flats are a necessary evil

The deadly fire that broke out at an industrial building in Kowloon Bay earlier this month has once again raised public concern about the safety of subdivided flats.

I already discussed this issue last year, suggesting that the government should improve the living conditions of these subdivided flats and allow occupants to continue to live in those units because of the huge demand for cheap homes.

However, my suggestion got mixed response. While many did not oppose my suggestion as they themselves were aware of the huge demand for these flats, they also did not dare to openly support my idea as subdivided flats in industrial buildings are illegal.

Some of them just put forward some middle-of-the-road counterproposals such as urging the government to build more Public Rental Housing (PRH) flats.

Yet the problem is, the pace in which PRH flats are built is lagging far behind the rising demand for homes among the grassroots population.

So how can we narrow that gap?

Like I said in one of my previous articles, many people, mainly the underprivileged and the working poor, are well aware that subdivided flats in industrial buildings are both dangerous and illegal.

These flats have no fire service installations and the occupants could get evicted at any time by the Buildings Department for violation of the Buildings Ordinance.

However, they are still willing to take the risk and rent these flats because these are the only kind of accommodation they can afford. Otherwise, they would have to sleep on the streets at night.

In other words, the demand for subdivided flats in industrial buildings continues to rise, despite the fact that they are illegal and often in poor condition, because poor people simply do not have any other choice.

Currently, the median waiting time for an eligible family to be allocated a PRH flat, if they are lucky, is at least three and a half years.

So where are these people supposed to live while waiting for their PRH flats?

These are low-income families which can’t even afford to rent a subdivided flat in residential apartments because they have become so expensive these days, and hence illegal subdivided flats in industrial buildings are their only option.

As we can see, if these people had other choices, they would definitely not risk their own lives living in makeshift subdivided flats in industrial buildings.

Therefore, in order to address the issue, the government must provide these people with more choices.

This might sound a bit crazy, but in my opinion the government should facilitate the supply of decent subdivided flats in residential apartment buildings that meet both building and fire safety standards.

Once there are plenty of these flats available on the market, their rent will certainly go down, thereby providing low-income families who are seeking a place to live a better and affordable option.

It is completely unrealistic to rely on PRH flats to solve our housing problem because the speed with which they are built can never catch up with the surge in demand for housing in our society.

That said, I strongly urge the government to think outside the box. In the short run, the administration should provide more incentives for residential property owners to convert their premises into affordable subdivided flats that are in good condition, thereby forcing illegal and run-down subdivided flats in industrial buildings out of the market.

Simply put, the government doesn’t have to take out illegal subdivided flats in industrial buildings one by one. All it needs to do is to let market forces do the job.

I believe it is important for the administration to come to terms with a harsh fact: subdivided flats are here to stay and, to a certain extent, they help to alleviate the demand for cheap housing in society.

It’s about time our decision-makers changed their mindset and started thinking about how to improve the condition of subdivided flats.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 27.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Assistant lecturer of Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong

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