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Before disputes over illegal structures are settled and as the majority are concerned about illegal structures that can be seen from the outside such as balconies and roof top houses, the society may also want to have inspection and removal action stepped up on unapproved changes made to the interior partitioning such as sub-divided flats. But sub-divided flats are currently providing many grassroots with accommodation. When proposing a total ban, there must be comprehensive supporting facilities to avoid the resettlement problem that is hard to solve.
Early last year, a block of tenement house on Ma Tau Wai Road suddenly collapsed, killing four people. This tenement house had sub-divided flats on every floor, causing extra burden on the structural support of the building. Experts found after investigation that sub-divided flats were not the real cause of the collapse. But the society's concern over the issue of sub-divided flats was already enough to make the authority step up inspection and control over them.
The current law does not prohibit flat owners from changing the indoor partitioning. When renovating their new flats before moving in, some citizens would have the walls torn down to combine rooms. Some would move walls. Many of these actions would only weaken the building load.
Sub-divided flat owners, however, go the opposite way, building additional walls. As rooms with toilets command higher rents, many sub-divided flats would have toilets installed. The water pipes and other circuits involved in the works often have to be done by laying the floor slab and then hiding the pipes under it.
Policy must take grassroots' housing needs into consideration
While there are chances that such practices are illegal, if too many sub-divided flats are built, they will greatly increase the load of the building. And if workmanship is poor, it will cause leakages and possibly damage the concrete and reinforcing bars. Some partitions will obstruct fire escapes. In more extreme cases, even the structural walls can be taken down.
In the three years and three months till the end of April, the Buildings Department had received a total of 4,400 complaints on sub-divided flats and issued 73 removal orders, most of which involved safety breaches on means of fire escape while a small portion of them involved water seepage and structural safety problems.
If sub-divided flats threaten the citizens' lives, they should be immediately banned. While the quality of living provided by sub-divided flats was poor, they had "mushroomed" all over Hong Kong. The reason was because there were such demands. Faced with ever-rising urban property prices and rents which went beyond what the grassroots could afford and the limited supply of public housing, sub-divided flats in old districts saved grassroots working in the district a large amount of time and transportation expenses in travelling long distances. It became the reason for the wide existence of sub-divided flats.
Step up inspections and regulation to ensure safety first
Banning sub-divided flats requires objective conditions. Unless the authority has a comprehensive plan to resettle all the grassroots living in such properties, a total ban would be impossible. Before that, the safety of sub-divided flats must first be taken care of.
Addressing the new sub-divided flats, the authority has since the end of last year included related drainage works under the Minor Works Control System, requiring owners to employ suitable professionals to carry out the works according to required procedures and standards. This will help avoid poor quality works leading to water seepage and a series of annoyances and safety issues. The authority is planning to regulate other work procedures related to sub-divided flats. Special attention should be paid to how to ensure safe fire escape under the environment of too many people on too little land.
As for those existing sub-divided flats, the authority plans to step up inspections to ensure safety. In the past, staff from the Buildings Department often could not gain entry into such flats. The authority is asking the Legco to amend the law to allow Buildings Department staff to apply to the court for a warrant for entry without owner's permission for inspections. As for the long-term solutions of environmental problems and improving the lives of sub-divided flat dwellers, it will depend on building more public housing as the ultimate solution.


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