Outcry from industrial buildings tenants
Should the government ease the application for the industrial buildings owners to change land usage?
by Paulus Choy
Ken Wong Cheuk-kei, a boxing coach who set up his gym in an industrial building in Kwun Tong last year, was carrying two bags filled with boxing gloves and gear during the day of the interview. He had just vacated his boxing gym after government officials deemed his place accident-prone, and told him to clear out.
He, along with many other tenants, is affected by the recent government checks on industrial buildings in Hong Kong. Recent fires that occurred in Ngau Tau Kok and Sham Shui Po, sparked public outcries to beef up control over these buildings.
Ngau Tau Kok fire in particular started due to an accident in a mini-storage room, and claimed the lives of two firemen.
The secretary for development, Paul Chan Mo-po, said the checks are targeted at industrial units which attract people to gather at the building, and other premises that store dangerous goods.Tenants found to be in breach of the lease during the check would be evicted.
The Land Department has announced that tenants found to have violated usage of the space, with risk of causing accidents, would have to move out by the 29th of August. Landlords would be granted 14 days to see the tenants move out, or else the government may repossess the property.
Since the decline of the industrial sectors in 1990s, industrial areas have been an ideal place for non-industrial businesses to operate, as they are not expensive and are quite spacious, even though the land usage of many of the industrial buildings has not been successfully converted.
Mr X, who refused to reveal his name, is facing the same challenge as Wong did, as he is renting an apartment for studio, which usage has not been successfully been converted.
Applying for the change of land usage is a long and complicated process.
Before they can set up their business, owners need to apply to both the Lands Department to pay a land premium, and the Town Planning Board (TPB). The TPB would then involve various government departments such as the Fire Services Department, to see if the buildings satisfy the safety requirements.
Wong said that in order to apply for a change of the land usage, the owner would have to pay land premium, many owners would simply rent out their unit without applying for conversion of land usage.
Mr. Y, who refused to reveal his full name as he owns one third of the units of an industrial building but is now currently operating an office there, said that the application for the waivers or conversions requires months to obtain. Tenants have to pay the rent during that time, and consequently many close down even before the waivers or conversions are approved.
If they have breached the terms of their lease, the tenants can only hope the Land Department will kindly grant them more time to persuade the owners to apply for conversion of the land usage. However, the government is unclear on the standards applied on the evictions.
Wong said officials have posted warning letters on the door of the gym, but has yet to conduct a check inside their complex.
“They have not entered my gym to collect evidences of violation; they took pictures through the windows, or they relied on pictures in newspapers as evidence,” the evictee said.
He also mentioned that apart from a few businesses who also got evicted, office units have been allowed to stay, and he is not sure why that is so.
“Is this selective enforcement? I think people need to judge it themselves.” Wong said.
While there have been frequent checks in recent months, Mr X felt that these checks are just high profile gestures to show the public after the fire, and would not persist.
Wong said the inspection focused on buildings that attracted less people and involved fewer tenants.
“They actually want to restrict the damage of their operation, ” the evictee said.
He said that the vacant units do not pose a fire hazard, and doubted if the evictions really solve safety issues of industrial buildings.
He said that if the checks persists, it will affect people who might want to open up businesses in these areas. The gym owner also said that his customers felt annoyed by his eviction and wishes he could find another spot to open up as soon as possible.
Mr X said that there might be a hit on the cultural scene, but the effects would be minimal, as he has been pessimistic towards Hong Kong’s art and cultural development in industrial buildings.
“The creative industry is non-existent, people do not really know about the band rooms in these industrial buildings, but would know you can buy baby formulas in there,” he commented.
Wong said the government needs to acknowledge the market demand for public spaces like industrial areas, set up rent control, and give clearer rules and regulations for tenants to follow.
He also thinks that the law and regulations regarding industrial buildings should be revised, and the legal usage of the places should be relaxed.
Mr. Y said that the government ought to reform the contract system and change all industrial land purposes to more practical ones, since industrial work is no longer important to the local economy.
(Edited by Kary Hsu)