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Unauthorised structures

Unauthorised structures in Hong Kong have become an epidemic as a result of the government’s lack of law enforcement. The Building Regulations have explicit rules governing building works in Hong Kong, and there are almost no ambiguities after numerous amendments and updates over the past decades. The proliferation of unauthorised buildings works has its root in a combination of physical, cultural, economical and legal causes.

Hong Kong is well known for its matchbox living environment owing to the high population and lack of developable land (this is largely a man-made fiasco but is not the subject of my article here). The very restrictive living space forces people to utilise every square inch of their flat by enclosing the balcony, encroaching onto the corridor, covering the backyard and building extra room on the roof. Sometimes, these extensions may overstep communal areas or pose threats to public safety.

Hong Kongers are renowned for their sharp eye for opportunities and swiftly taking advantage. If a property owner encloses his balcony and is not stopped by the relevant authorities, his neighbours will follow suit in no time. Tolerance is regarded as silent consent. In my 30 years of surveying practice, I have heard enough misconceptions about unauthorised structures. Some say a balcony enclosure does not increase floor area and is therefore allowed by the Buildings Department. Others say if your self-erected room on the roof was built before a certain date, it would be tolerated as well, and so on.

To many, valuable property means that if extra space can be ‘created’, its price could be enhanced. It is not uncommon for a house with unauthorised extensions to carry a higher price, or a top-floor flat with a covered roof to sell for more than one with an uncovered roof. With the government’s inaction in enforcing the Building Regulations, property owners become greedier, encouraging the proliferation of extensions and alterations in an effort to ‘add value’. Very often, the seller and buyer readily agree on signing a separate agreement to the effect that unauthorised structures in the property is concealed from the mortgagee so that they do not affect the buyer’s eligibility for mortgage. Moreover, the buyer generally agrees not to raise objection to the seller’s title in relation to the structures.

All this stems from the relevant government departments’ ineptitude in enforcing the regulations. The Buildings Department normally does not carry out actions until a formal complaint on an unauthorised structure is received. When such structures are confirmed to be building works needing sanctions, the department issues a demolition order and has it registered against the property titleship. No further action is taken even though it is stipulated that the government will take initiative to carry out the demolition and recover the cost from the owner if they do not comply with the order within a certain period of time. Very seldom does government demolition take place. As a result, owners can continue to ‘enjoy’ this benefit of increasing the value of their property.

There are some measures we consider essential in wiping out unauthorised structures. Such measures will be discussed in the next issue of Market Watch.

By Koh Keng-shing