Substandard housing: Goodbye, good riddance

Xia Baolong, the director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, implored Hong Kong to try to “say goodbye” to rented rooms made from subdivided flats. Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told reporters that some of the rooms in subdivided flats were decent. 

She is right. I think what Xia meant was that Hong Kong should eliminate all substandard housing, not only substandard rooms made from subdivided flats. Similarly, when Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR, witnessed the appalling state some Hong Kong families are living in, his concern was not over the subdivided units per se, but the overcrowded living conditions, poor hygiene, poor ventilation, fire hazards, etc. Even some accommodation other than subdivided rooms might be substandard and non-compliant with the legal requirements. Nor should such situations be tolerated. 

Barely a week ago, when Typhoon Kompasu hit Hong Kong and the No 8 warning signal was hoisted, part of the ceiling in a “subdivided room” collapsed. A piece of concrete almost hit a 22-year-old man who shared the room with his mother. At the time, he was sleeping on an upper bunk bed. The room became uninhabitable. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions who assisted the family remarked that decent subdivided rooms make up a small fraction of all subdivided rooms.

I hope the HKSAR government will do two more things. The first is to take stock of all “substandard” housing units. By “substandard”, I mean the ones that violate building codes, especially fire safety standards. The second is to require owners to fix as many of the problems as possible

This room had suffered from water leakage for years, but the landlord had ignored the problem, and no government action was ever taken. Although the room was substandard, the rental price plus fees of the utilities cost about HK$6,000 ($770) a month, leaving little room for other expenses for the family of two, given that their monthly income was less than HK$10,000. They have been waiting more than four years for a public rental housing flat. They are now hoping for a priority position in the long queue for transitional housing. With the average wait for a PRH flat for a family well over five years, it is not surprising that another family, which includes two parents and their daughter, have waited more than six years in a tiny subdivided room of 120 square feet. Fortunately, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan indicated that he will consider giving priority to households in especially difficult situations.     

Given this harsh reality, it is gratifying to learn, from Mrs Lam’s latest Policy Address, that 5,000 additional transitional housing units will be available in the coming years. The HKSAR government has launched a Cash Allowance Trial Scheme that has so far benefited about 30,000 households. Moreover, in January, a new ordinance will take effect that will further protect the rights and welfare of the “subdivided room” tenants through rent controls.    

On top of this, I hope the HKSAR government will do two more things. The first is to take stock of all “substandard” housing units. By “substandard”, I mean the ones that violate building codes, especially fire safety standards. The second is to require owners to fix as many of the problems as possible. In case government requirements cannot be met, “transitional improvements” should be recommended and made within a specified period. If the landlords of the subdivided flats are found to be breaching some aspects after the assigned period for improvements, they should be banned from renting their properties. Given that these recommendations are controversial, I shall explain as follows. 

It is, of course, preferable if the landlords can make all the necessary changes to comply with existing laws. If they cannot do so, evicting tenants with no workable plan to accommodate them in better housing will result in more people being made homeless. That would be even worse. 

Given that the government may not be in the position to create sufficient housing to accommodate all evicted tenants in a short time, requiring the landlords to make any feasible improvements in the short run will still provide some protection to the tenants’ rights. The tolerance, or forbearance, is the “second-best” solution, and will offer a window of time in the “transitional period” for the government to find better solutions, including transitional housing.    

In my view, Xia has reminded the HKSAR government to be proactive in tackling the real problems that some people are facing. Without ignoring the excellent work that many civil servants have done, there are gaps that need to be filled. The preponderance of illegal “subdivided rooms” is a case in point. Late last year, a century-old underground reservoir in Sham Shui Po would have been demolished had it not been for a public outcry to preserve a historic structure that featured Romanesque arches. The HKSAR government must face the fact that not all civil servants are doing their jobs conscientiously.    

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.