Ever since I bought my then-Lower Mid-Levels now-Soho apartment 20 years ago, I have never ventured up to the fifth or sixth floors at the top of the building. I’ve never had a need to, and the lack of an elevator has dampened any curiosity I might have. But a while ago a builder doing some work up there described one particular unit, which I know belongs to an absentee landlord who manages to be even less active than others in our barely functioning owners’ committee. The property was made up of tiny rooms off an extremely narrow internal corridor, and some occupants were Filipino women. And there are, indeed, a couple of Filipinas in the building who come and go wearing the staff uniform of a Central-based finance/loan shark company catering to overseas maids. So, on top of the illegal structures that give the place so much character, we also have a subdivided flat in our midst.
Given the tendency for Chief Executive CY Leung’s top officials to have property-related problems, it was only a matter of time before the media revealed that one of them was a slum landlord. Take a bow, newly appointed Development Secretary Paul Chan. His wife is a part-owner of a couple of subdivided apartments in Kowloon.
Older residential buildings in downtown areas are especially suitable for subdivision. Unlike with modern high-rises, the units on or near the top floors fetch the lowest rents; but landlords can make quite a bit more by splitting them up with plasterboard into what are basically self-contained cells. To members of a particular low-income group, HK$2,000 a month for such a space seems to make sense, since it saves on travel time/costs. In less convenient neighbourhoods something similar happens, but the occupants are the real underclass – typically the elderly or single-parent mainland families. The Wall Street Journal did a good expose of the latter type of residents here with a sample floor plan here.
The Standard says Paul Chan’s wife’s family’s friends’ whatever’s company’s subdivided properties may be illegal. The South China Morning Post also identifies some tiresome-sounding possible tax dodge associated with another Chan-related property trade. Rather conveniently – so conveniently it starts to look almost desperate – an intermediary has cropped up in person to announce himself as the individual who did the subdividing without, of course, telling the Chans about it. It is not yet clear whether any of the subdivided flats have a trellis.
What we are going to have now is another scandal about integrity and/or common sense and nothing else. Chan (or wife, etc) will undergo crucifixion for infringing some obscure building code, or for not being more careful and checking and rectifying the infringement earlier. The outrage will be that he (or wife, etc) is criminal or, failing that, was negligent. The pro-Henry Tang camp will especially enjoy it when Democratic Party boss Albert Ho goes to court or the United Nations about it. Will Chan outlast his predecessor, CK Mak of housing allowance scam, who lasted less than two weeks?
The real scandal will probably go unmentioned: our land and housing policies force people into third-world living conditions. If I were Chan, I would come out fighting: “You should thank my wife’s family’s blah-blah’s company for providing this sort of housing, because without it, thanks to Donald Tsang and other previous leaders’ inaction and heartlessness, those tenants would be on the streets. Nothing will make me happier than to pull down the plasterboard after my bureau completes its mission to ensure everyone has affordable housing, but we can’t do that if you idiots keep disrupting us with blather about integrity, and by the way I can’t help noticing that some of our detractors have major financial interests in keeping homes unaffordable.”
If you have the nerve to produce blue-shirted Mr Wu who subdivides flats without telling the owners, why not? And anyway, we’re going to run out of ministers before long.