Following is a question by the Dr Hon Lam Tai-fai and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (November 7):
Regarding the Government's reply to my written question raised on October 24, 2012 concerning sub-division of flat units (commonly known as "sub-divided units"), bedspace apartments (commonly known as "caged homes") and cubicle apartments, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) given that the Government instituted prosecutions in respect of 41 removal orders between 2007 and September 30, 2012, of the respective numbers of sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments involved in those cases, as well as the number of those in which the persons involved were convicted and the penalties imposed on them;
(b) why the government departments concerned have not kept records on the numbers of unauthorised sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments in Hong Kong, as well as the numbers of households living therein; whether they have any plans to compile the relevant statistics; if so, when they will do so and complete the task; if not, of the reasons for that;
(c) as it has been reported by the media that in its paper submitted to the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee (SC), the Government indicated that as at mid 2011, a total of 65,000 people were living in cubicle apartments, bedspace apartments and cocklofts and around 6,200 people were living in commercial and industrial buildings, making the total number of those living in sub-divided units and cubicle apartments to around 71,000, why the Government said in its reply to my question that the government departments concerned had not kept records on the numbers of unauthorised sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments in Hong Kong as well as the numbers of households living therein; whether the Government will provide the paper to this Council; if not, of the reasons for that;
(d) as the Government has said that cubicle apartments and sub-divided units are not defined in the Buildings Ordinance (Cap. 123), how the law enforcement authorities take effective enforcement actions against unauthorised cubicle apartments and sub-divided units, and whether it has any plan to amend the Ordinance to add the definitions; if not, of the reasons for that;
(e) as the Government has said that the Buildings Department (BD) has been issuing removal orders against unauthorised building works in sub-division of flat units, but it has not categorised such units into sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments, why it has not made such categorisation, and whether it has any plans to do so;
(f) of the total number of licensed bedspace apartments and the estimated number of unlicensed bedspace apartments throughout the territory at present;
(g) as the Government has said that in the past five years, the Office of the Licensing Authority under the Home Affairs Department instituted prosecutions against two cases of suspected operation of unlicensed bedspace apartments, and those involved in the cases were convicted by the court and fined $3,000 and $9,740 respectively, whether the Government has assessed if the number of prosecutions instituted was on the low side, and whether the penalties were too light; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(h) as the Government has said that normally BD does not register at the Land Registry warning letters issued during enforcement actions in respect of unauthorised sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments (commonly known as "imposing an encumbrance"), of the reasons for that;
(i) as the Government has said that if the owners do not comply with the removal orders within a specified period of time, BD may carry out the works concerned through government contractors and the costs of the works, together with supervision and additional charges, shall be recoverable fully from the owners, of the annual number of cases in which BD carried out such works through government contractors in the past five years, the costs involved and whether they had been fully recovered from the owners concerned;
(j) as BD issued a total of 527 removal orders during the period from 2007 to September 2012, of which 166 orders have been complied with while 361 orders have not and are being followed up, of the problems involved in those 361 cases and the reasons for not instituting prosecutions so far, and how BD will follow up such cases;
(k) given that a member of SC has suggested converting industrial buildings to hostels, thereby turning them into "legalised sub-divided units", whether the Government will assess the feasibility of the suggestion; if it will not, of the reasons for that; if it will, the details, and whether the Government will consider relaxing the plot ratios for industrial buildings being converted to such purpose; if it will, of the specific recommendations; if not, the reasons for that;
(l) why the government departments concerned do not have statistics of accidents and incidents related to sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments, and whether they have any plans to compile the relevant statistics; if not, of the reasons for that;
(m) as the Government has not given answers in respect of the details of the appropriate safety and hygiene standards which the Chief Executive has pledged to set, whether it can provide a direct response to this question; if not, of the reasons for that;
(n) as the Government has not given answers in respect of the time to start and finish drawing up the appropriate safety and hygiene standards, as well as setting long-term policies to solve the problem comprehensively, whether it can provide a direct response to these questions; if not, of the reasons for that; and
(o) as the Government has not answered whether any work indicators, objectives and timeframe have been drawn up for tackling the problem of unauthorised sub-divided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments, whether it can provide a direct response to this question; if not, of the reasons for that?
"Subdivided units" are not defined under the Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123) (BO). The term is commonly used in the community when referring to cases where a domestic unit is subdivided into two or more smaller self-contained units for sale or for rental. Each of these smaller units usually has its own toilet. Some even have their own cooking places. If the subdivision works do not violate any related legislation, for example the BO and its subsidiary legislation, they are not illegal.
"Caged homes" are commonly known as bedspace apartments and the term is not defined under the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance (Cap 447) (BAO). According to the extant laws of Hong Kong, operation of bedspace apartments is under the regulation of the BAO. Under the BAO, a "bedspace apartment" means any flat in which there are 12 or more bedspaces used as sleeping accommodation for individuals under rental agreements; any person who operates bedspace apartments must hold a licence. The purpose of the BAO is to ascertain that the premises intended to be used as bedspace apartments comply with structural and fire safety standard as well as the requirements on sanitary configuration, so as to ensure the safety of occupants and other users of the premises.
"Cubicle apartments" are not defined under the BO either. They are generally understood to be wooden cubicles of simple construction commonly found in tenement buildings completed in the 1950s and 1960s, enabling a unit to accommodate more than one tenant or sub-tenant. Openings are usually left at the top of the wooden partitions for ventilation and light borrowing. Without their own toilets and cooking places, tenants of the cubicles have to share the toilet and kitchen present in the unit concerned. If the building works related to cubicle apartments do not violate any legislation, they are not illegal.
My reply to different parts of the question is as follows -
(a) When taking law enforcement actions under the BO, the Buildings Department (BD) only considers whether there is any violation of the BO. Therefore, the BD has made no categorisation of cases involving subdivided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments. Regarding the prosecutions in respect of the 41 removal orders for subdivided units between 2007 and September 30, 2012, 14 cases were convicted and fined. The fines ranged from $1,500 to $8,000, amounting to $45,000 in total.
(b) As abovementioned, the BD only considers whether there is any violation of the BO when taking law enforcement actions under the BO. If the building works involving subdivided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments have not violated the BO, such works will not be subject to law enforcement by the BD. In addition, as there are numerous private buildings in Hong Kong, any survey for acquiring the said statistics will require substantial manpower for inspection and data collection inside the private units. Permission from the owners or occupiers concerned will also be required for entering the premises to conduct any inspection. For such reasons, the departments concerned have not kept any records of the numbers of unauthorised subdivided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments in Hong Kong and that of the households living therein. There is also no plan to conduct such survey.
(c) According to the Transport and Housing Bureau, the Administration has provided the following information to the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee:
"Based on the General Household Survey of the Census and Statistics Department (C&SD), as at the second quarter of 2012, there were about 31,800 domestic households living in private temporary housing or in rooms, cubicles, bedspaces and cocklofts in private permanent housing with a total of 64,900 persons living therein. Based on the 2011 Population Census conducted by the C&SD, as at mid-2011, there were about 3,044 domestic households living in quarters in non-residential buildings (including commercial buildings and industrial buildings) with 6,230 persons living therein."
The above figures of 31,800 households and 64,900 persons cover not only the households and population living in rooms, cubicles, bedspaces and cocklofts in private permanent housing, but also those living in private temporary housing. As "subdivided units" would be considered as living quarters (instead of rooms/cubicles) by C&SD for statistical purposes if they have direct access to the streets, public corridors or staircases, the above figures could not be regarded as statistics relating to "subdivided units". Moreover, C&SD has no information on whether a unit of quarters, room/cubicle, bedspace or cockloft is an authorised structure. Also, the other departments concerned have no records on the numbers of households living in unauthorised subdivided units, caged homes and cubicle apartments in Hong Kong.
(d) and (e) The main objective of the BD's law enforcement actions is to rectify the irregularities related to subdivided flats and cubicle apartments. Thus the focus is to ascertain whether there is any violation of the BO in the building works inside the subdivided flats, and whether the units concerned are cubicle apartments or subdivided units is not a factor for consideration. Hence, the BD does not regard it as necessary to draw up any definitions of cubicle apartments or subdivided units under the BO.
(f) and (g) The Office of the Licensing Authority (OLA) under the Home Affairs Department is responsible for the enforcement of the BAO. It is tasked with the issue of bedspace apartment licences and enforcement. The OLA's records show that there are currently 13 licensed bedspace apartments, providing a total of around 880 bedspaces used as sleeping accommodation for individuals. Over the past five years, the OLA has received a total of 103 reports of suspected operation of unlicensed bedspace apartments, including reports made repeatedly against the same premises. The OLA's investigation revealed that there were two substantiated cases which involved unlicensed operation of bedspace apartments and violation of the BAO. Prosecutions were successfully instituted in relation to these two cases.
The OLA, upon receipt of reports of suspected operation of unlicensed bedspace apartments, will conduct inspections (including surprise inspections) within eight working days. Upon investigation, if there is sufficient evidence indicating operation of any unlicensed bedspace apartment in the premises, prosecution shall be instituted.
Unlawful operation of a bedspace apartment is a criminal offence. According to Section 5 of the BAO, any person who is convicted of operating an unlicensed bedspace apartment is liable to maximum penalty of a fine of $100,000 and imprisonment for two years, and a further fine of $20,000 for each day during which the offence continues. The court, when meting out sentences, will consider the circumstance of each case, including the fact of the case and the background of the defendant(s) before imposing the penalty.
(h) The BO does not empower the Building Authority to register at the Land Registry warning letters issued during enforcement actions. Nevertheless, if the BD has issued any removal orders against any irregularities, it will register at the Land Registry such removal orders issued against the premises concerned in accordance with the BO.
(i) Among the removal orders issued between 2007 and September 30, 2012 regarding unauthorised building works related to subdivided units, the BD has in four cases made arrangements for government contractors to carry out the removal works. The works of one of these cases commenced in 2011. Since the works have not yet been completed, the relevant costs cannot be ascertained. The works associated with the remaining three cases commenced in 2012. However, at the initial stage of the removal works, the owners concerned requested to engage their own contractors to carry out the works. Although the owners concerned have taken up the works, they would still have to pay the BD for the costs incurred in the advance works and for supervision charges, which range from $3,800 to $9,200. The BD is making arrangements to recover such costs from the owners concerned.
(j) Concerning the orders issued between 2007 and September 2012 which have not been complied with (361 cases), the irregularities involved mainly include construction of unauthorised door openings which contravene the requirements for fire-resistant construction needed for means of escape; the addition of partition walls causing obstruction to fire escape; improper drainage works causing water seepage; and overloading of the building due to excessive addition of non-structural partition walls and/or excessively thickened floor screeding.
Among these 361 cases of non-compliance, over 75% of the orders (277 cases) were issued in the large scale operations (LSO) taken in 2012. The BD will continue to follow up the cases. Under the BO, owners who have failed to comply with the orders before a specified date may be prosecuted by the BD and are liable on conviction to a maximum penalty of a fine of $200,000 and imprisonment for one year. The BD may also arrange a government contractor to carry out the relevant works and subsequently recover from the concerned owners the costs incurred in the works as well as supervision charges and surcharges.
(k) The measures for revitalising industrial buildings were introduced in April 2010 to encourage redevelopment or wholesale conversion of existing industrial buildings with a view to better utilising precious land resources to meet the needs of social and economic developments. Currently, in converting industrial buildings for residential use, the Town Planning Ordinance (Cap 131) and statutory plans, the BO and its subsidiary legislation, and the conditions in the relevant land leases have to be complied with. However, most industrial buildings are located on sites with zoning restricting or not permitting residential use. Even if residential use is permitted in planning terms, the conversion would face various technical difficulties, including plot ratio and site coverage etc, under the building and land lease control regimes. To help cope with the shortage of housing supply in the short-to-medium term, the Government is exploring whether there are feasible stop-gap measures with respect to the proposal to facilitate wholesale conversion of industrial buildings to "transitional accommodation" use on an interim basis under the existing policy on revitalisation of industrial buildings. The proposal is still under study.
The Report on Area Assessments 2009 of Industrial Land in the Territory conducted by the Planning Department (PlanD) has proposed to rezone about 60 hectares of industrial land to other suitable uses, including about 30 hectares of industrial land to be rezoned to residential use. One third of the sites to be rezoned to residential use have completed the process of statutory plan amendment. The plot ratios of such residential sites will be determined on the basis of the circumstances of individual sites and various factors, including surrounding environments, traffic capacity, supporting infrastructure, and urban design principles (such as visual quality and ventilation). The PlanD intends to conduct a new round of Area Assessments of Industrial Land in the Territory in 2013.
(l) Since there is a huge variety of accidents and incidents relating to subdivided units, bedspace apartments and cubicle apartments, and that there is no mechanism requiring related parties to report such accidents and incidents, the departments concerned have no statistics of accidents and incidents related to subdivided units, bedspace apartments and cubicle apartments.
(m) to (o) To ensure that proper safety and construction standards are attained, the Government has enhanced its regulation over building works associated with subdivided units. The Building (Minor Works)(Amendment) Regulation 2012, which came into effect on October 3, 2012, has included building works associated with subdivided units under the Minor Works Control System, so that these works would be required to be carried out by qualified professionals and contractors. As such, like other ordinary flats, the works related to subdivided units should not be carried out in contravention of the BO and other regulations (which specify the building design and construction standards in such aspects as fire safety, structural safety and drainage works), thereby ensuring the quality of such works and minimising the safety and sanitation problems associated with subdivided units. The BD will also carry out random inspection on completed works to ensure the works are conducted properly.
The BD has since April 2011 launched an LSO aimed at rectifying irregularities of building works associated with subdivided units. Since April 2012, BD has enhanced the LSO by increasing the annual number of target buildings from 150 to 200, the target number of subdivided units for inspection has also increased to about 1,600 accordingly. With respect to the fire at Fa Yuen Street in November 2011, the BD has adjusted its enforcement strategies in 2012 to prioritise enforcement against double-staircase buildings in the vicinity of hawker stalls. It is estimated that there are about 340 buildings of this kind. From April 1, 2011 to September 30, 2012, the BD has inspected 455 target buildings and 2,581 subdivided units. The BD shall continue to inspect and take enforcement actions against subdivided units with respect to the above targets. Also, the BD shall actively deal with complaints relating to unauthorised subdivided units in order to handle the building safety issues relating to subdivided units.
As the licensing authority of bedspace apartment licences, the OLA, in processing a licence application, will examine an application with reference to the safety and sanitary standards in relation to building structure, fire safety and sanitation under the BO and the Fire Services Ordinance (Cap 95). The OLA shall ascertain that the premises concerned comply with the safety and sanitary standards as provided in the relevant ordinances before issuing a licence to the applicant under the BAO.
Ends/Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Issued at HKT 17:02