Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A deadly fire in a Hong Kong storage facility underscores two of the city’s knottiest issues: affordable housing and revitalization.
This past weekend, Hong Kong firefighters extinguished the city’s longest-running fire in 20 years. The four-alarm blaze, in an industrial warehouse-turned-mini storage facility, took more than 108 hours to put out and claimed the lives of two firefighters.
The storage cubicles’ tiny dimensions—they’re described as the size of elevators—as well as the fact that they were separated by metal sheets, which firefighters had to break down to battle the blaze, made the fire particularly dangerous and difficult to extinguish. Mostly though, it was the lack of safety features, such as an automatic sprinkler system, that allowed the fire to rage. Industrial buildings in Hong Kong that were constructed before 1973 are not required to have sprinklers; the warehouse in question was completed in 1961.
In the aftermath, politicians and business leaders are discussing ways to make sure this never happens again. But on a deeper level, the conflagration magnified two trends afoot in Hong Kong: the exorbitant cost of housing and the government’s policy to revitalize industrial areas after factories moved to mainland China.
Mini storage facilities have proliferated in the city as housing prices have continued to skyrocket. The 2016 Demographic International Housing Affordability Survey ranked Hong Kong the least affordable city in the world for the sixth year in a row, with the median home sale price currently at 19 times the median income. Hong Kong’s 2016 score is also the highest in the survey’s 12-year history. “So Hong Kong isn’t only the least affordable city right now—it’s possibly the least affordable city ever,” noted Time.
The storage units are an inexpensive way to gain space for keeping clothes, appliances, and other paraphernalia of everyday life in a city where, aside from highly competitive subsidized housing, monthly rents can run $16,000 HKD (roughly $2,000 USD) for a 275-square-foot apartment. The storage units in the charred building reportedly rented for around $600 HKD ($77 USD) a month.
Hong Kong’s government issued an Industrialization Revitalization Policy in 2010 to encourage the reuse of vacant warehouses whose former tenants had moved their companies to the mainland in order to take advantage of cheaper labor. The aim was to convert the buildings into offices, storage units, and spaces for arts-related activities by re-zoning them. Though fire and other safety measures were part of the thinking around the plan, they haven’t always been implemented.
In other ways the revitalization project has been a success. The government even ended it earlier this year as the demand for such buildings had grown so large that it wanted to keep supply in check.
Now the fire’s consequences—not just loss of property, but of life—are forcing Hong Kong’s leaders to recognize the need for tighter regulation of these converted spaces, particularly storage facilities. Ideas being floated range from requiring sprinklers in older buildings to more stringent inspections to installing openings that would release smoke. Like tragic fires of the past, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in Manhattan in 1911, Hong Kong’s 2016 fire may spur better safety practices. They’re presumably more likely to be realized in the short term than lowering the cost of housing.