Lucy lives in an office tower. On the fringes of Sai Ying Pun, she found a bright, newly renovated commercial space in an old walk-up. Bordered on one side by three-quarter height windows and equipped with the kind of pantry typically found in “progressive” workplaces — a fridge, double sink, counter space, open-concept shelving — it also had a small bathroom with a shower stall. Not much one for cooking, a new electric hot plate from Wing On served her stove purposes, and the bathroom was certainly no smaller than the one in her old flat. The space was 600 square feet with only one interior door (the bathroom), giving the unit a 90 percent efficiency rate. Best of all? The rent: $12,000.
What Lucy, and thousands of other Hongkongers, is doing is illegal. Hong Kong’s zoning laws are strict. Commercial space is for commercial business, residential is for living in. Yet the beat goes on. There are no official numbers on how many of us are cutting corners, and the government bodies responsible for keeping things in order (Development Bureau, Buildings Department) generally turn a blind eye unless a complaint is lodged. Effectively makeshift lofts, more than a few owners are doing what the government won’t and rezoning their properties for residential use — and more than a few tenants are rolling the dice and taking up leases.
“I was living in a terribly designed 450-ish square foot place around SoHo. It was nice enough and it was newly renovated with a small balcony, and it was close to Central,” explains Lucy. “But when the lease came due my landlord wanted to go from $14,000 to $17,500. I thought, ‘No way.’ I happened to see a notice for the office building when I was visiting a friend one day in Sai Ying Pun and thought, ‘Why not?’ Everyone does it.”
Not everyone but enough. The property agent handling the unit was largely unperturbed when, after a few conversations with evasive answers, he figured out she was moving in and didn’t have a business. He fulfilled his duties by informing her that she was in breach of the law and rattled off a laundry list of reasons leasing the unit for residential use was a bad idea but in the end he called the landlord. “It helped that the unit had been empty for a while,” notes Lucy.
With housing perpetually undersupplied the idea of converting old factories and other industrial spaces has been floating around for at least a decade. Though Chief Executive CY Leung recommitted to the concept in his last Policy Address, fewer than 60 conversions were approved by the Lands Department between 2010 and 2013, and most of those were okayed for offices, shopping malls and hotels. The argument is that retrofitting industrial spaces to the standards of living spaces is not economically feasible, nor do the SAR’s draconian building regulations make it physically possible. The biggest inspiration for breaking the rules is bureaucratic rigidity; this kind of repurposing works in almost every other city in the world.
So for now, Hong Kong has adventurous tenants that are creating their own lofts. Getting around the rules, sneaky as it is, can be done. An independent Sheung Wan property agent speaking anonymously admits individuals buying or renting commercial spaces in the name of private companies is common, making it a matter of “business convenience” to have a bed, various kitchen items and a full change of clothes at work. “If you are legitimately working there then there’s no real argument against using it as a ‘home’ too,” said the agent. “At worst you’ll get fined and possibly evicted. But you’d really have to upset someone for anyone to find out what you were doing.”
Yet there are some downsides. For anyone looking to purchase a commercial space mortgages can be hard to come by, and as the BD keeps official records of how a building is zoned for use, anything else is illegal. Any changes to the unit can also be determined illegal structures and make it difficult when it comes time to resell. Utilities in commercial buildings are charged at different rates, with power, gas, Internet and phone being considerably higher than in residentially zoned buildings, though phone bills have come down with the widespread adoption of mobile phones for personal use. Lucy got lucky with both her facilities and her location. Not all commercial spaces — very often industrial spaces — are built to accommodate private plumbing and finding a unit in a mixed-use tower in a spot like Sai Ying Pun is luck of the blind kind. Most tenants daring to live in an industrial or commercial space are in industrial or commercial areas like Chai Wan, Kwun Tong and Aberdeen, which are wastelands at night and on weekends, and where conveniences like supermarkets are rare.
Your neighbours could also be auto body shops, printers or other noisy enterprises. “Yeah, there’s someone really noisy below me. I think it’s an oil shop or something. Not sure, but they don’t really close on holidays. When I’m ready for a lie in they’re usually down there at 8 in the morning making a racket. It’s the price I pay,” sighs Lucy. But it’s a pretty good price.