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Persistent social problem
Illegal uses of public housing

By Dick Lee

Under leasing agreements with the Housing Authority, public estate tenants are forbidden to convert residential flats into commercial units, and vice versa, without authorisation.

According to the Housing Authority, in 1999, 1,200 notices were given to people who had violated the agreement.

Though these tenants were requested to leave, only 920 moved out voluntarily. Another 280 tenants were forced out.

In Yiu Man House of Tin Yiu Estate, one residential unit is converted into a barbershop in daytime. The area for hair washing occupies half of the kitchen’s space.

“The rent of the commercial units downstairs is just too high. The cost of operating the business here is much lower,?said Mr. Wang (not his real name), the owner.

“His barbershop is very popular,?said a customer sitting in the living room.

“Our customers are recommended by relatives and friends. The authority does not know about our shop,?Mr. Wang said.

A similar case can be found in a residential unit in Chi Wan Estate.

Ms. Ha (not her real name), a tenant who runs a barbershop in her unit, said, “Why should I be afraid of the Housing Authority? I am just running a small business at home. Who cares??

On the other hand, some tenants convert shops into homes.

A vegetable stall in the Yuen Long Estate is divided into two parts. Half is for business and the other half is for a residence.

“He has been residing in the commercial unit for a long time. The authority has not intervened,?said an adjacent grocery tenant.

“He already has a residential unit somewhere upstairs,?she said.

The vegetable vendor declined to respond to questions.

Ms. Peggy Tai Wai Lin is a frequent customer of unauthorised barbershops.

Said Ms. Lin: “I know they are unauthorised. But the low prices are attractive.

“Moreover, they are near my flat.?/font>

Ms. Li Siu Kuen, a resident of Pok Hong Estate, said she once saw a bone-setting clinic operating in a residential unit.

The Housing Authority’s pamphlet states that tenants converting the units for unauthorised purposes are “abusing their units?

It also says that they cause unfairness to current residents and people on the waiting list.

Apart from unauthorised conversions, goods storage in residential units and sub-leasing of residential units are other common abuses.

The department controls a Central Investigation Team that handles unauthorised conversions.

Ms. Chan Fong Wah is the spokeswoman for the News Section of the department.

She said that the department regularly sends patrol teams.

Ms. Virginia Ip is the spokeswoman for the Hong Kong People’s Council on Housing Policy.

She said the measures taken by the department are ineffectual. She said there are loopholes in the rules.

She believes that the department depends too much on complaints and does not spot check enough.

“The use of the hotline is to unload responsibilities onto residents. This is a sign of their laziness,?said she.

She said that the department employed a lot of private services.

“The number of government employees has been cut. Can they tackle these problems efficiently with limited manpower??said Ms. Ip.

Mr. Wong Kwun is the chairperson of the Federation of Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Public Housing Estates Resident and Shopowner Organisation.

He agreed with Ms. Ip about the insufficient numbers of inspections done.

Both of them doubted the effectiveness of the hotline.

“No one wants to infuriate their neighbours,?he said.

Ms. Ip further explained, “Those lengthy instructions disappoint many citizens.

“They think the hotline service is troublesome and are less willing to complain.?

The Housing Authority's Ms. Chan disagreed.

“The hotline provides complaint services every day. The cost of running the hotline is lower than that of hiring extra staff. It is cost effective.?

Ms. Chan agreed that residents?support of unauthorised businesses intensifies the problem. But she denied that its small staff leads to lower efficiency.

Mr. Frederick Fung Kim Kee was the vice-president of the Legco Housing Panel from 1991 to 1998.

He said inspecting units biannually is too infrequent. But he also admits that it is “impossible to stamp out such a problem?even when all resources are mobilised.

Only with tenants?self-discipline and the department’s efficient actions will the problems be solved.




Dick Lee

Tenant resides in the rear of the commercial unit.