Information Paper for the LegCo Panel on Housing
Regulation of the building and fire safety aspects
of bedspace apartments and related issues Purpose
This paper provides a background of the legislative measures taken in relation to the regulation of the Bedspace Apartments (BSAs), in particular in respect of building and fire safety aspects. It also outlines the actions taken by the Administration following the enactment of the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance, Cap. 447 (the Ordinance) in facilitating the licensing of BSAs and rehousing of BSA lodgers before the Ordinance comes into effect on 1 July 1998, and summarises the concerns raised on the subject.
2. BSAs are private dwellings which comprise essentially bedspaces for letting. Most of the BSAs are usually located in old tenement blocks where fire and building safety standards are poor. Subsequent to a number of tragedies in BSAs in September 1998, including an arson attack on a BSA resulting in three persons dead and 13 injured, the Legislative Council Panel on Housing (the Panel), at its meeting on 5 October 1998, reviewed the progress of the licensing scheme under the provision of the Ordinance and the rehousing arrangements for the BSA lodgers. To facilitate a better understanding on the improvement of the living conditions of lodgers in licensed BSAs and on the facilities of singleton hostels which were provided for BSA lodgers, members of the Panel conducted a visit on 30 October 1998 to a licensed BSA and a singleton hostel in Wanchai.
3. To enable members to examine the problems observed during the visit, in particular about the effectiveness of the Ordinance in bringing about improvements to BSAs, the Panel decided at its meeting on 2 November 1998 that with the implementation of the Ordinance, a paper should be prepared to outline the present position of the regulation on BSAs and to set out issues and problems that have not been adequately addressed by the Ordinance. The paper should facilitate members to determine the way forward.
Current legislative measures
4. The overcrowdedness and poor living conditions in BSAs have all along been a serious concern in Hong Kong. Prior to 1994, there was no control of any kind on BSAs.
5. In December 1990, a fire broke out in a BSA in Sham Shui Po causing seven persons killed. In October 1991, the Coroner's Court issued a rider that consideration should be given by the authorities to a BSA licensing and inspection scheme. The Bedspace Apartments Bill, which provided for such a licensing scheme, was introduced to the Legislative Council in June 1993. During the scrutiny of the Bill, it was noticed that the legislative arrangements as contained in the Bill only aimed to regulate the building and fire safety of BSAs, but not to rehouse the lodgers. The Bill proposed that:
- means of escape and sanitary and plumbing facilities shall be provided in a licensed BSA to ensure safe and hygienic accommodation to the lodgers and their safe escape in the event of a fire or other emergency;
- all fixtures, fittings, equipment, facilities and installations in a licensed BSA and any exit routes and means of escape shall be properly maintained in good repair and a safe condition free from any risk of fire or injury to lodgers; and
- all fire service installations and equipment and all electrical wiring and installations in a licensed BSA shall be installed and maintained by authorized contractors.
6. The Bills Committee noted from their meetings with deputations that the Bill was inadequate in tackling the problem of the appalling living conditions and overcrowding in BSAs. The deputations considered, inter alia, that:
- The Bill should stipulate a minimum living space per lodger. As many types of accommodation, e.g. elderly hostels and nursery homes, have their own standards in setting the minimum living spaces for each dweller, BSA should also have its own standard and the area should be specified in the BSAs Code of Practice;
- Standards for basic facilities such as the size of toilet should be specified in the Bill;
- New BSAs should be partitioned into small bedrooms to enhance privacy and to create a sense of security for the lodgers; and
- The Administration should consider purchasing and operating some of those existing BSAs which were unable to comply with the licensing requirements.
7. The Bills Committee recognised that due to the lack of housing resources, BSAs could not be totally eradicated at that time. Members therefore supported the passage of the Bill as the first step to solve the BSA problem. The Bill was passed on 27 April 1994 with an exemption period expiring on 30 June 1998 to allow BSA operators time to register with the Licensing Authority and to carry out the necessary improvement works.
8. The Secretary for Home Affairs is named as the Authority under the Ordinance; the Office of the Licensing Authority (the Licensing Authority) of the Home Affairs Department (HAD) is given the responsibility to implement the licensing scheme.
Government efforts in solving problems of BSA
Licensing of BSAs
9. Under section 5 of the Ordinance, any person who operates an unlicensed BSA is liable on conviction to a fine of $100,000 and to imprisonment for two years. Since the enactment of the Ordinance, the Licensing Authority has been urging operators to complete the upgrading works and to apply for licences. District offices have also been publicizing information on the application for BSA licences and conducting regular visits to licensed BSAs to enhance their understanding of requirements under the Ordinance.
10. According to the information provided by the Administration, all BSAs have to be inspected to ensure their compliance with the requirements under the Ordinance before any licences are issued. The number of lodgers accommodated in each apartment has to be specified in the applications and to be approved by the Licensing Authority.
11. As at 14 October 1998, 92 BSAs have been registered with the Licensing Authority with 63 BSAs occupied by 1189 lodgers fulfilling the licensing requirements and were issued licences. Another 29 registered BSAs accommodating 545 lodgers have not complied with the requirements in the Ordinance. Licences will be issued to these BSAs when their operators have completed the upgrading works.
Rehousing of BSA lodgers
12. In implementing the licensing scheme, it is aware that lodgers may be displaced in the event that operators are unable or unwilling to meet the requisite safety standards and choose to reduce the number of bedspaces or cease operation. The Government has undertaken that no lodger will be rendered homeless as a result of the implementation of the licensing scheme and assured that the lodgers displaced will be assisted with rehousing if they so require.
Displaced elderly lodgers
13. According to the Administration, displaced lodgers aged over 60 or with medical or health needs will be considered by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) for admission into welfare institutions or public rental housing (PRH) estates through compassionate rehousing. SWD has conducted half-yearly visits to registered BSAs to ensure that all elderly lodgers, including new comers and those who have been omitted in previous visits, are aware of the services provided by SWD. If eligible lodgers are willing to accept compassionate rehousing, SWD will complete the relevant assessment and make recommendation to HD within six weeks. HD will then take another three weeks to complete the allocation process.
Singleton hostels operated by HAD
14. As regards those lodgers not within SWD's purview, they are eligible for admission into the singleton hostels operated by HAD. Displaced lodgers have the priority for rehousing to these singleton hostels.
15. Since 1994, the HAD has purchased 38 private premises in the urban areas and converted them into singleton hostels to provide accommodation for 534 lodgers. A purpose-built multi-storey singleton hostel building in Sham Shui Po with a capacity of 310 has also started to admit residents recently. Construction works for another purpose-built singleton hostel building on west Hong Kong Island with a capacity of 270 have just commenced. HAD is also planning to build similar singleton hostels in Smithfield Road on Hong Kong Island and Bailey Street in Kowloon. By 2002/03, a total number of 1,684 places will be open for applications from lodgers of licensed and unlicensed BSAs.
16. As at 5 October 1998, only 150 of these available spaces have been taken up. However, the Administration reiterates that the occupancy rate would gradually increase with the expiry of the exemption period on 30 June 1998.
Public Rental Housing
17. In parallel, HD has been encouraging lodgers to apply for PRH through normal channels. Housing Centres have been set up in districts with high concentration of old tenement buildings to facilitate people to register on the Waiting List. Staff of these Housing Centres have also conducted home visits to the elderly living in BSAs to assist them to apply for public housing.
18. The present waiting time for BSA lodgers aged below 58 to acquire PRH flats is nine years. HD has attributed the long waiting time to the limited supply of single-person PRH flats. Although efforts have been made to increase the supply of these flats over the next years by various measures such as constructing a supplementary wing of small flats in existing PRH estates and new Harmony PRH blocks as well as converting small PRH flats to single-person flats, the supply will still be insufficient to meet the increasing demand. Besides, HD has decided to give priority to the elderly in the allocation of single-person PRH flats. Other applicants including BSA lodgers will have a longer waiting time for PRH. Nevertheless, HD anticipates that between 1998 to 2001, about 200 BSA lodgers will be rehoused each year through the Waiting List or compassionate rehousing.
Other hostels operated by non-Government organisations
19. In rehousing BSA lodgers, SWD has also financed some non-government organisations to set up "urban singleton hostels" to provide short-term accommodation for, among others, lodgers from BSAs. There are four such hostels each providing 40 spaces. A new hostel in Tsuen Wan will soon be completed. Another three hostels are at the planning stage and are scheduled for completion between 2000 to 2002. By 2002, a total of 320 such places will be available.
Areas of concern
20. Based on the issues raised at various meetings with the Administration, the areas of concern in relation to BSAs need to be addressed can be summarised in the following paragraphs.
Low Safety standards
21. The provisions in the Ordinance provide means to regulate the fire and building safety of BSAs. However, the standards set out in the BSA Code of Practice are so low that the passageway may not be wide enough for safe escape in the event of fire or other emergencies. In the Code of Practice, all internal passageways in a BSA and doors in passageways are required to have a minimum width of not less than 750 millimetres, i.e. about one and a half shoulders wide.
22. The Wanchai Cage House Problems Resident Concern Group which the Panel met on 5 October 1998, has given an example that in a licensed BSA with a floor area of 600 square feet accommodating 36 lodgers, the internal passageway of only 750 millimetres wide cannot provide safe escape in the event of fire. The low safety requirements are unable to accomplish the purpose of the Ordinance.
23. Overcrowdedness is the key concern of the Panel about BSAs. Overcrowding living environment of the BSAs gives rise to problems such as conflicts among BSA lodgers, hygienic conditions, fire and building safety, etc. Even with the stipulation of building and fire safety requirements in the Ordinance, the problem of overcrowdedness in BSAs remain unresolved. The Administration has reiterated that the purpose of the Ordinance is only to set out certain minimum fire and building safety standards. By complying with these standards, the Administration considers that the overcrowding problem of BSAs can also be relieved.
24. Some members have brought up the subject of minimum living space per person and enquired the Administration if setting a minimum standard of living space per individual lodger of BSA could help eradicate the overcrowding problem. The Administration's stance in this respect is that it does not intend to propose legislation to regulate the minimum (or the maximum) living space for individuals in private premises. The Government considers that a person's living space is governed by factors such as the market conditions, economy, personal finance and personal choice. Any regulations on minimum living space, even if prescribed, will be difficult to enforce.
25. To take the subject further, the Secretariat is planning to collect information on the subject of minimum living space per person from other jurisdictions which are comparable in respect of crowded living environment in private premises.
"Cubicle Apartments" not subject to the Ordinance
26. The provisions of the Ordinance only apply to premises in which there are 12 or more bedspaces under separate rental agreements. Evidence shows that following the enactment of the Ordinance, there has been an increase in the number of "Cubicle apartments" of which the living environment is even worse and which are not subject to the control of the existing legislation.
27. According to the Administration, there is no information on the number of "cubicle apartment" in the territory. It is also not possible for the Government to conduct any systematic survey to find out the number of BSAs or "Cubicle apartments" in Hong Kong, since the Government has no legal basis to enter private premises to conduct inspection. The Administration last conducted a survey of BSA in 1991. There were at that time 180 BSAs with 4,000 lodgers. The survey was updated in 1993 and the number of BSAs was reduced to 145 accommodating about 3,200 lodgers. As BSA operators take their own initiative to register with the Licencing Authority, HAD does not have information on those BSAs which have not registered with the Licensing Authority. There is also no way to find out how many BSAs which have been converted into "Cubicle apartments" to obviate the need for licensing. Besides, some of these "Cubicle apartments" might have come into existence after the enactment of the Ordinance.
28. Without any records on BSAs and "Cubicle apartments", it is difficult for the Panel to ascertain the size of the problem and assess whether BSA operators could easily escape the control under the meaning of "bedspace apartment" stipulated in the Ordinance by converting the BSAs into "Cubicle apartments".
29. "Cubicle apartments" also give rise to rehousing problems. Singleton lodgers living in "Cubicle apartments" are not eligible for singleton hostels as these apartments fall outside the definition of BSA under the Ordinance. As such, the Ordinance and the related rehousing provisions have also failed to address the housing problem of singleton lodgers despite they have the same housing needs as the lodgers of registered BSAs.
Failure to rehouse lodgers
30. The most fundamental issue to be addressed in solving the problem of BSAs is meeting the housing needs of singleton lodgers. However, even at the time when the Bedspace Apartments Bill was introduced, the Administration reiterated that the objective of the Bill was to regulate the fire and building safety of BSAs and not to rehouse all the lodgers. It therefore did not take up the Bills Committee's request to conduct a comprehensive survey on the existing lodgers to assess the actual rehousing needs. Even today, there is no indication that the Administration has any intention to ascertain the actual population of BSA lodgers, nor to control its growth. It only undertakes to rehouse those lodgers displaced due to the implementation of the licensing scheme.
31. As regards the population of BSA lodgers, a recent survey conducted by Society for Community Organization reveals that in Tai Kok Tsui district alone, there are about 30 BSAs accommodating 700 lodgers. According to its estimation, the current population of lodgers living in illegal BSAs and cubicle apartments in Hong Kong is 10,000.
32. As there is no classification on the PRH Waiting List to differentiate BSA lodgers from other applicants, the Administration is unable to provide further information on BSA population and has no knowledge of the admission rate of lodgers of illegal BSAs into PRH. The size of the housing problem of BSA lodgers is unknown. Nevertheless, HAD has recently commissioned a survey on BSAs in districts known to have a high number of BSA lodgers. It has also been reported that HAD intends to extend the survey to all 18 districts in December 1998.
33. Although singleton hostels are available to BSA lodgers, the low occupancy rate indicates that they are not welcomed by BSA lodgers. The rules and regulations imposed by the hostels have made the lodgers feel that their freedom and privacy will be compromised once living in the hostels. According to the submission provided by the lodgers at the Panel meeting on 5 October 1998, visitors are not allowed to enter singleton hostels and lodgers are not provided with keys of the entrance doors.
34. In this respect, HAD has reiterated that publicity on the management of the hostels has been stepped up to remove misunderstanding amongst lodgers over the regulations of singleton hostels. They have confirmed that lodgers are only requested to observe some basic rules, such as visitors are required to indicate the purpose of their visits and obtain the lodger's permission before entry. They assure members that they will endeavor to make the singleton hostels meet the needs of the lodgers.
The way forward
35. To facilitate members to consider the way forward, a number of pointers are given below for the purpose of discussion:
Adequacy of current measures in improving the conditions of BSAs
- examining the scope of premises which should be put under legislative regulation, e.g. having regard to the total number of residents exceed a set limit rather than the number of rental agreements;
- examining the possibility of setting a standard of minimum living space for individuals;
- examining the Ordinance with a view to setting a standard of minimum facilities in BSAs, such as provision of toilet and kitchen facilities, etc;
- computerising the records of known BSAs and following up on cases where no application for licensing has been received;
Rehousing of BSA lodgers
- ascertaining the actual population size of BSA lodgers in Hong Kong and setting a timetable for rehousing them to singleton hostels and PRH;
- considering the establishment of a mechanism to update the size of population in need of rehousing;
- examining the possibility of mandatory registration of elderly BSA lodgers and following up on cases in need of rehousing provision;
- computerising the records of BSA lodgers, based on records of licensed BSAs, applications for PRH, etc;
- reviewing the waiting time for allocation of single person PRH flats and the progress in the construction of these flats;
- reviewing the present inadequacy of singleton hostels in meeting the needs of BSA lodgers, and examining the eligibility criteria for admission to singleton hostels;
- reviewing the occupancy rate of singleton hostels and exploring ways to attract applications from lodgers; and
- examining the feasibility of granting rent subsidy to BSA lodgers and Waiting List applicants.
36. To further study the subject of the regulation of BSAs, a more in-depth research may be required to find out the experience of other populated cities in providing standards for private dwellings of low income groups, in particular, rented dwellings for singletons or single elderly persons. A draft outline of the research is proposed in the Appendix
37. Members are invited to take note of the information in the paper and advise on the way forward.
Legislative Council Secretariat
28 December 1998
Preliminary Outline for Research Project
Standards for Private Dwellings for Lower Income Group
The purpose of this research is to find out the experience of populated cities in providing standards for private dwellings of lower income group, in particular, rented dwellings for singletons or single elderly persons. The study will cover both the legislative and administrative measures in regulating the following aspects of these dwellings:
- building and fire safety;
- basic facilities;
- living density; and
- other standards, if any.
2. The study will also cover the provision of government aids to this category of people.
3. In this research, we propose to collect information on the above areas from those cities which are comparable to Hong Kong in respect of population density and income.
Situation of Hong Kong
4. In light of the findings of the above, the study will also examine the feasibility of setting a standard of minimum living area for individuals in private premises in Hong Kong, and, if so, the implementation of such a standard.