Following is a question by the Hon Chan Han-pan and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (June 10):
It has been reported that on April 29 this year, personnel from the Buildings Department (BD), in collaboration with police officers, executed closure orders and carried out demolition works against two sub-divisions of flat units (commonly known as "sub-divided units") in Wing Fung Industrial Building in Tsuen Wan. Subsequently, over 20 affected tenants and representatives of support groups petitioned at BD's Mongkok office to request the authorities to "rehouse before clearance" and waited overnight at the corridor outside the office for several days. The incident has aroused wide public concern about the authorities' rehousing arrangements for the affected tenants when carrying out operations to eradicate sub-divided units in industrial buildings. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether the authorities have grasped the current number of sub-divided units in industrial buildings; if they have, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) of the respective occupancy rates of various Interim Housings (IHs) in the past three years; whether the authorities will consider using IH units as temporary accommodation for the tenants affected by operations to eradicate sub-divided units in industrial buildings; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(3) given that the aforesaid operation to eradicate sub-divided units led to strong resistance from the tenants, whether the Government will suspend those eradication operations which are under planning; and
(4) as the authorities indicated in 2012 that they were exploring ways, under the policy on revitalisation of industrial buildings, to facilitate the owners of suitable industrial buildings to undertake wholesale conversion of such buildings to transitional accommodations compliant with relevant requirements for use on an interim basis, of the current progress of such work?
Industrial buildings (IBs) are not designed for domestic use and thus are subject to requirements different from those applicable to domestic and composite buildings on various aspects. Tenants of units in an IB converted for domestic use illegally are exposed to high fire and safety risks posed by the other units within the same IB which may still be used for industrial activities or storage of dangerous and inflammable goods.
Even if all the other units are vacant at the time the tenants move in, or no units are used for industrial activities or storage of dangerous and inflammable goods, they can be put to such hazardous uses that are incompatible with domestic use at any time. As such, illegal use of IB units for domestic purposes will pose a serious fire and safety risk to the tenants. To ensure the safety of the public and the tenants, stringent enforcement action has to be taken by the Government.
It is Government's policy that no one will be rendered homeless as a result of Government's enforcement action. If tenants lose their homes due to Government's enforcement action, they can be admitted to Po Tin Transit Centre (TC) in Tuen Mun through referrals by relevant departments, while they wait for eligibility vetting for further rehousing or look for alternative accommodation themselves. If these tenants have stayed in the TC for three months and passed the "homeless test", subject to fulfilment of eligibility criteria for public rental housing (PRH), the Housing Department (HD) will arrange for their admission to Interim Housing (IH) and application for PRH's waiting list.
My reply to the four-part question is as follows:
(a) The Buildings Department (BD) does not have the statistics on the total number of IB units converted for domestic use in the territory. To conduct such survey, BD would need to enter the units of around 1 900 IBs in Hong Kong for inspection, which would involve practical difficulties and substantial manpower and resources. Furthermore, the situation observed may change from time to time.
(b) According to HD, there are two TCs under the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA), namely, the Po Tin TC in Tuen Mun and Lung Tin TC in Tai O, providing a total of more than 400 bed-spaces at present. There are also three IHs under the HA, namely, Shek Lei IH, Po Tin IH and Long Bin IH, providing a total of about 5 000 IH units. The occupancy rate for IHs varies depending on circumstances and the number of referral cases. As at end 2014, the average occupancy rate of the three IHs in the past three years was nearly 70 per cent.
PRH and IH are both valuable housing resources of the community involving heavy public subsidy. Furthermore, at any point in time, HD must have sufficient vacant IH units to cope with emergency situations. Therefore, the Government has to handle the rehousing cases of tenants of illegal domestic units in IBs in a fair and appropriate manner lest it result in unfair treatment to PRH applicants who are waiting for allocation. Allowing tenants of illegal domestic units in IBs to be admitted to IH directly without passing the eligibility vetting conducted by HD is not only unfair to other persons in need, but will also convey a wrong message to the community that living in illegal domestic units in IBs is a shortcut for admission to IH and even PRH. This may induce more households to live in illegal domestic units in IBs, resulting in safety risk for both the public and the tenants, and further worsening of the problem. HD will follow the prevailing arrangement in providing temporary accommodation for persons affected by BD's enforcement action against domestic units in IBs on a need basis.
(c) As mentioned in the preamble, as illegal use of IB units for domestic purposes will pose a serious fire and safety risk to the tenants, BD has to continue its efforts to eradicate illegal domestic uses in IBs. If BD's enforcement action involves relocation of tenants, it will closely liaise with the Social Welfare Department, Home Affairs Department and HD to provide assistance to those who are affected. The social services teams of BD will also provide necessary social and emotional support to the affected tenants. BD has implemented the assistance programme endorsed by the Steering Committee on Community Care Fund since December 2011 to allocate one-off relocation subsidy to tenants who have to move out of illegal domestic units in IBs due to BD's enforcement action. As at end April 2015, BD had approved 141 applications with 205 beneficiaries.
BD will first apply to the District Court for a Closure Order to ensure smooth conduct of removal works and safety of the residents prior to its eradication operation. BD will issue a Notice of Intention to Apply for a Closure Order and post it at the venue before the application for the order so as to allow a reasonable period of time for tenants to move to self-arranged residences or the TC arranged by HD.
(d) With regard to the feasibility of allowing wholesale conversion of IBs for "transitional accommodation" use, the Government had examined the relevant regulatory regimes, including the Buildings Ordinance (Cap. 123), Town Planning Ordinance (Cap. 131) and land leases, etc., and had approached IB owners to understand the actual situation. IBs generally do not meet the design and planning requirements for domestic use (e.g. the regulations on natural lighting and ventilation), therefore, if an IB is to comply with the building standards and requirements so drawn up, the conversion works for "transitional accommodation" use would involve substantial alterations or demolition of parts of the building. Some IB owners had indicated that the relevant works would be very costly, rendering the conversion infeasible. As a matter of fact, most IBs are situated in areas with active industrial operations. Domestic use may not be compatible with the existing uses in various aspects, including traffic and fire safety, etc. The current regulatory regimes cannot effectively control the uses in the existing IBs in vicinity so as not to cause adverse impact on or danger to the domestic use. Meanwhile, the vacancy rate of IBs has been decreasing while the rental rate has been on an upward trend. This reflects the demand for space in IBs required for various economic operations, particularly from small and medium enterprises. Therefore, having taken into full consideration of the need to protect the well-being of residents and the need of the whole community, the Government considers that allowing wholesale conversion of IBs for temporary domestic use is not practicable. We had briefed the Legislative Council Panel on Housing Subcommittee on the Long Term Housing Strategy on the relevant findings in July 2013.
Ends/Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Issued at HKT 14:31