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Talk of the Day -- Bulldozing row snowballs

2012/04/01 22:38:14

The bulldozing of the Wang family homes as part of a controversial urban renewal project in Shilin District in Taipei has snowballed, causing Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin to cancel his trip to the Boao Forum in southern China.

The Wangs, supported by students and other protesters, returned to their razed homes Saturday to claim legal ownership of the property, demanding that developers stop construction work and that Hau step down to take responsibility.

Members of a victims coalition, who claimed they have been wronged by the Urban Renewal Act, urged the central government to take over the Shilin case and help the Wang family rebuild their homes at the site.

The following are excerpts of reports by major Taiwanese newspapers on the issue:

China Times:

With more than 300 students and civilian protesters behind him, Wang Kuang-shu, who represents the Wang family, said he and his family members will not change their position of protecting their ancestral homes.

Wang said he was especially frustrated by the city government's new policy of "holding off razing down houses in other projects" after tearing down his family's homes.

When the Wangs and supporters "returned" to the Wangs' address, they could only stand on a heap of debris. Wang Lee Shu-mei, the family's eldest daughter-in-law, cried "I want my home back!"

Wang Yang Mei-yu, the family's matriarch who is in her 80s, was shocked by the sight of the home in which she had lived for over 60 years reduced to a pile of rubble.

Supporting the Wang family were, among others, professor Shih Chi-sheng of Soochow University and entertainment industry figure Ou-yang Ching.

Shih said all citizens should be "members of the Wang family" and keep protesting until "someone (in the government) comes out to shoulder the responsibility."

Ou-yang said reviving old communities was supposed to be an "all- pleasing business" that had now turned into the unfortunate result of wiping old history off the map.

Representatives of the Urban Renewal Project Victims Coalition called on the Taipei government to immediately stop all controversial projects and allow citizens to participate in the process of proposing amendments to the existing law.

They said they would "rent" the Wang family site and use it as a "bastion" for a long-term fight against the government's "bullying tactics."

Lin Chung-chieh, director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Office, also expressed his frustration in a facebook post that political commentators, professors and experts only dared criticize lower-level officials charged with carrying out the law, knowing that the law is deeply flawed.

This newspaper tried to confirm that the message was in fact posted by Lin but could not reach him by phone.

Hau's spokesman Chang Chi-chiang said the mayor will soon meet with scholars and experts to seek their views on all aspects of the law, including the city government's role and how to settle legal disputes arising from enforcing the law.

The city has also delayed all plans to tear down "remnant houses" in other controversial renewal projects -- a duty that local governments are obligated to perform under existing law.

Chang said the urgency of this issue was the reason behind Hau's decision not to go to Boao in Hainan, southern China -- not so-called pressure from the central government.

Interior Minister Lee Hong-yuan, who has promised to produce a draft amendment to the current law within six months, said that before the law is amended, it must remain in force, as more than 1,000 urban renewal projects are in progress across the country.

"What we must recognize is that the Shilin case must not be repeated," Lee said.

He urged local governments to "make their own judgments" based on the Shilin experience.

He did point out that people have different interpretations of what constitutes "public interest," though he is also aware that the relevant provisions in the law must be "more clearly stipulated."

Wang Kuang-hsiang, who represents the nation's developers, said this was a regrettable development as all urban renewal projects will be put on hold while the law is being reviewed.

He predicted that the delay in implementing existing, approved projects will have an impact on the domestic housing market and overall economic growth. (April 1, 2012)

The Liberty Times:

Wang Kuang-shu, the owner of the bulldozed house, thanked all those who have given his family support and said the only thing the government can do to remedy the situation is to "build a house on the site that is identical to the old one."

In the face of calls for Mayor Hau to step down, his spokesman, Chang Chi-chiang, said the city government would reflect on its actions before responding to criticisms from all sides.

The incident has at least forced the city government to suspend two cases in which it was asked to tear down structures in controversial renewal projects.

Opposition Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chen Chi-mai said his party has drafted an amendment that would require the government to "zone out" households that refuse to join urban revival projects.

Under the DPP proposal, Chen added, developers will not have the legal power to sell planned housing units before the builders obtain consent from all residents whose property is to be affected.

Chang Chin-oh, a National Chengchi University professor, suggested that NGOs be encouraged to participate in mapping out such projects and that an alternative dispute resolution mechanism be adopted outside the judicial system so people refusing to be included in the proposed projects can have a chance to seek remedy.

To avoid a repeat of the Shilin development controversy, Chang proposed raising the ratio of consenting participants to initiate a renewal project to 50 percent from the current 10 percent of all affected households.

A confirmation mechanism should also be set up for house or land owners who have not participated in public hearings. Such a mechanism would make sure, in writing, that they have been informed of the plan to rebuild the community and that, if they still refused to join in, a legal channel would be provided for them to air grievances, he added.

Members of NGOs authorized to participate in the urban renewal process should include certified architects, appraisers, land administrators and urban planners, Chang said.

Under the revised law, builders can only start to sell the housing units after all existing houses in the "zone" have been razed and razing can only begin after a court rules in favor of doing so, Chang said. (April 1, 2012)

United Daily News:

Sixteen sociology professors from various universities and Academia Sinica issued a joint statement denouncing the "state violence" used to enforce an unjust law and made three proposals to remedy the situation.

The three proposals put forth by Hsiao Hsin-huang, Ho Ming-hsiu and 14 others were: thoroughly review the Urban Renewal Act, realize housing justice and abolish the rules governing floor area ratio that is related to building density and the greening ratio.

Professor Tai Po-fen of Fu Jen Catholic University, one of the 16, said the law should not be used by developers as "bulldozing" tools, even though under the law in its existing form, business groups aided by the government are authorized to "rob the people of their houses."

Any residential area of 500 square meters can be used to initiate a renewal project, with two-thirds of the owners having the power to tear down all housing units in the planned zone, according to Tai.

Wang Hong-jen, another sociologist who put his name on the joint statement, said the Shilin case indicated that builders were making huge profits at the expense of ordinary citizens whose lifetime investment in their homes could be rendered worthless.

When the capitalists build luxury homes for sale from a prime site, Wang said, they are creating serious "class issues" that only aggravate social injustice.

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu said that if a similar case had happened in her southern Taiwan metropolis, she would have handled it with "greater caution."

Such factors as culture, history and "life memories" should be considered when carrying out urban renewal projects, Chen said, noting that the law sometimes has not been designed to account for all such aspects and so "specific exceptions" should be allowed. (April 1, 2012)

(By S.C. Chang)