Hong Kong’s old buildings are crumbling, but flat owners balk at repair fees, prompting calls for government action on ‘ticking time bombs’


A retiree who bought the flat as an investment and to rent out for income, Leung said he tried to form an owners’ corporation to deal with the repairs and called a meeting, but no one showed up.

Only about a quarter of the flats still belonged to individual owners.

“Many original owners have sold to developers and property acquisition companies who want to redevelop the block and do not care about repairs,” Leung said.

“I feel it is unfair. The government can ensure that the repairs are done and collect fees from all the owners.”

‘30 Hong Kong buildings to undergo emergency repairs’ after falling concrete cases

Although there have been no mishaps with injuries at the block, Leung was concerned about an issue that has become all too common recently.

“Falling concrete is causing casualties and it is a real headache,” he said.

There were at least 24 incidents of concrete bits and debris falling off old buildings in July and August alone, according to a count by the Post.

Four pedestrians were injured, and a double-decker bus was damaged in August when a piece of concrete crashed onto its roof.

The recent incidents reignited discussion about how the city should deal with ageing buildings.

Inspection finds half of 47 ageing Hong Kong buildings at ‘immediate risk’

While owners like Leung complained that it was hard to carry out even mandatory repairs, experts urged authorities to increase enforcement of existing rules, reform the maintenance mechanism and make better use of technology.

The government introduced a mandatory building inspection scheme in 2012, requiring buildings aged 30 years or older to appoint a registered inspector to check and carry out necessary repairs. Residential buildings not exceeding 3 storeys were exempted.

Upon receiving a mandatory inspection order, buildings with an owners’ corporation have a year to complete the process, while those without one are given three more months.

Those who do not comply may be fined up to HK$50,000 (US$6,400) and jailed for a year. Offenders may also be ordered to pay HK$5,000 for every day that the order is not carried out.

Although the orders have been issued to buildings that crossed their 30-year mark and were identified as high risk, many have not complied.

As of May, 2,700 buildings failed to complete mandatory inspections within their deadlines, including 500 three-nil buildings like Leung’s block.

A third of the total had yet to take the first step of appointing a registered inspector to carry out the necessary checks.

Since July, the Buildings Department has begun demanding that owners of these buildings report their progress, warning that those who dragged their feet unreasonably would face prosecution.

As of 2021, the city had a total of 27,030 private buildings aged 30 years or older.

Recognising years ago that some owners faced difficulty carrying out inspections, the government has injected a total of HK$6 billion into a maintenance subsidy scheme with the Urban Renewal Authority since 2018.

The authority is exploring ways to speed up processing applications for the “Operation Building Bright 2.0” scheme which offers owners technical assistance and a subsidy of up to HK$50,000 per owner-occupier after completing necessary repairs.

Retired art teacher Angel Chan*, 68, has been on a steep learning curve since her block in densely populated Yau Tsim Mong received the mandatory inspection notice in 2018.

The Covid-19 pandemic slowed progress on tendering for inspectors and contractors, said the chairwoman of the owners’ corporation for the building that is more than 60 years old.

With the authority’s help, the repairs are expected to be completed by the end of this year, but Chan said she had to collect money from the owners of 68 flats to pay a bill exceeding HK$8 million before they could receive the subsidy.

Aaron Bok, former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, says city’s buildings are generally built using durable materials, concrete and steel bars. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

So far, however, about 15 per cent of the owners “haven’t paid a cent”, she said.

“A few flats are vacant and I can’t even contact the owners … Some are managed by property agents who are reluctant to pay such a huge amount.”

Hoping that they would pay up, she said she preferred to take legal action only as a last resort.

“The repair cost put a heavy burden on my living costs,” said Chan, who lives alone. “But it will be worthwhile if I can stay in a more comfortable environment for the rest of my life.”

‘Fix these ticking time bombs’

Aaron Bok Kwok-ming, immediate past president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, said that generally, the city’s buildings were built using durable materials, concrete and steel bars.

“Buildings are designed to be used for 50 years. They can last up to a century if they are maintained well,” he said.

Urging owners to conduct regular checks every few years, he said leakage, improperly done renovations and the addition of unauthorised structures could cause concrete to fall off and compromise structural integrity.

Regular maintenance could in fact mean savings in the long run as it helped to avoid major repairs that resulted from years of neglect.

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“It is similar to the human body. If you have been having annual check-ups, you will be fine. If not, you will need to spend a lot when you identify a big problem,” he said.

Bok said the government should be more decisive in stepping in to do repairs on behalf of owners if the state of the buildings endangered public safety.

“It will be more efficient in solving these ticking time bombs,” Bok said. “But the government should only do essential repairs. Otherwise, owners will have little incentive to do it themselves.”

The Buildings Department told the Post earlier that the government was open to any suggestions that could improve building safety, but made clear that owners bore the primary responsibility for repairs.

Currently, the department will step in on behalf of owners to inspect and repair buildings considered to be at higher risk. It will collect the cost plus an additional 20 per cent fee later, but owners can apply for a subsidy.

As of May, the government had plans to carry out repairs at 1,100 buildings, including 700 three-nil buildings.

Vincent Ho, of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, suggests having a designated body with more powers to coordinate repair and maintenance efforts. Photo: Edmond So

But Vincent Ho Kui-yip, building policy panel chairman for the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, hoped the authorities could do more as residents of three-nil buildings were unable to meet the requirements themselves.

He said the government fixed only the parts of a building assessed to be at risk, but did not do preventive repairs, such as adding waterproof layers to slow down decay.

He suggested having a designated body with more powers to coordinate repair and maintenance efforts.

The current fine, capped at HK$50,000 and shared among owners, should also be increased to deter owners who hold numerous units, Ho said, adding that authorities could look into imposing fines on individual owners.

He said owners would think twice about not paying their share of HK$80,000 or HK$100,000 for repairs if failure to do so brought a fine of HK$10,000 or HK$20,000 per flat.

Warning for ‘obstinate’ Hong Kong building owners to ensure work orders followed

He encouraged building owners to create a fund for mandatory repairs from early on and hoped that the government could make this compulsory.

“Many buildings have a financial reserve for daily maintenance work, such as fixing lights and burst water pipes, but not for large-scale inspections and repairs,” said Ho, who has been in the industry for more than three decades.

Ho said owners should contribute to the reserve fund as long as they owned the property, and not leave the burden for those who bought later.

He also felt that buildings should be subjected to mandatory inspections earlier than at 30 years, and suggested doing them at 25 years instead.

As of May, the government had issued 7,000 inspection notices over the decade as these were considered to be at higher risk. Another 12,000 buildings over 30 years old had yet to receive the orders.

The buildings selected each year were a mix of buildings in different conditions, of different ages and across the city.

Wong Wah-sang, honorary associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of architecture, suggested learning from Singapore, where residential buildings must undergo check-ups every decade.

But if Hong Kong did the same, the government would have to provide financial assistance to the poor and be efficient, as the number of buildings needing inspection would rise significantly.

“If we go for this, there should be a schedule of implementation otherwise it would be extremely difficult to engage so many professionals for the inspection work all at once,” Wong said.

A chunk of concrete measuring 50cm by 30cm fell from a building in bustling Mong Kok in August. Photo: Dickson Lee

He explained that the city’s newer buildings were likely to have fewer maintenance issues as building materials had become more durable and they were easier to maintain.

For example, he said, curtain walls and cladding materials provided better protection, unlike buildings completed in the 1950s to 1980s that had walls covered with only bare cement plaster and mosaic tiles.

Some newer buildings came equipped with gondolas for cleaning and inspection whereas old buildings needed costly scaffolding to be erected each time such work was done.

But Chen Xi, a research assistant professor at Chinese University’s department of mechanical and automation engineering, said new technologies and standards could cut the cost of scaffolding for old buildings.

He has developed an inspection system using drones to photograph the exterior walls of buildings before artificial intelligence tools analyse the images to identify defects and their level of risk.

Falling concrete chunk in Hong Kong rips hole in roof of double-decker bus

Instead of erecting scaffolding over the entire building exterior to check where defects might be, he said the drone system pinpointed critical points needing attention.

While the drone inspection could be done in just a few days, Chen said completing the report would require more time as professionals would have to analyse the results.

Since August, the government has begun using a different system of drones to survey buildings at risk of falling concrete, and pledged to carry out emergency repairs and recover costs from the owners.

Chen also said having an efficient inspection system called for qualifiable, comprehensive standards on defects needing attention, something Hong Kong did not have.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the sizes of cracks on blocks built with bricks were specified.

“These standards add credibility to our system. With them, we won’t even need registered inspectors to sign the papers for inspection,” he said.

*Names changed at the interviewees’ request.


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