Why homeless hit the roof over evictions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 1995, 12:00am

HAVING one's home knocked down and being made homeless is a most unpleasant experience. But if demolition cannot be avoided, as is the case with tens of thousands of illegal rooftop structures all over the territory, then choosing the demolisher is a privilege the rooftop dwellers may want to have.

Of course, they are not entitled to this choice. All they can hope is the wrecker's hammer is ordered by the Land Development Corporation (LDC), which offers the most generous compensation, rather than the Buildings Department, which sticks to the rule that dwellers of illegal structures do not have a legal right to be compensated.

Call it double standards if you want. The fact of the matter is by law different government agencies and landlords offer vastly different compensation packages for evictions.

True to the Hong Kong spirit of favouring 'progress', rooftop dwellers whose homes stand in the way of redevelopment, get much better deals for eviction than those whose dwellings merely pose a risk to public safety.

The prime concern of the LDC, a statutory body charged with the job of urban renewal, is to obtain vacant possession of dilapidated buildings as soon as possible so that redevelopment can proceed.

In its bid to achieve this objective, the LDC's prime concern is not whether a rooftop structure is legal. What matters is ownership of the rooftop.

The LDC will negotiate with the owner of any rooftop, whose title is registered at the Lands Office, to acquire it at a fair price.

The corporation will commission two valuers to assess the value of the rooftop and make an offer based on the higher valuation plus 20 per cent.

Tenants of a rooftop structure can opt to receive cash compensation or be rehoused in a flat owned by the LDC, provided they do not own any other domestic property and are lawful Hong Kong residents.

The amount of cash compensation is five times the rateable value of the rented premises. If a tenant is co-operative and accepts the settlement within three months after the offer is made, then he can also get an extra 30 per cent of the basic offer.

The LDC's rehousing arrangement compares favourably with being housed in a public housing estate.

Although the LDC acquires its flats at market price, it does not charge its tenants the full market rent.

The rent for tenants who earn less than $10,000 a month is set at 23 per cent of the full market rent, 35 per cent for those earning between $10,001 and $14,000, and 52 per cent for those earning more than $14,000.

It even has bed-spaces for singletons and the rent is just $250 a month. The rent for a single-person cubicle is $350 and that for a two-person cubicle is $700.

Unlike the Housing Department's rigid eligibility rule for public housing, which bars those who have been in Hong Kong for less than seven years, the LDC does not discriminate against recent immigrants.

By comparison, if you're a tenant of a rooftop structure and your landlord wants to repossess the building for redevelopment, the Landlord and Tenant (Consolidation) Ordinance provides you can get cash compensation equal only to 1.7 times, compared with the LDC's five times, of the rateable value of the premises.

Still, the terms are better than if you are asked to go by the Buildings Department, which is tasked with clearing illegal structures and whose priorities are those posing an imminent danger to the public or to owners and occupiers.

The current policy provides that affected rooftop squatters are given permanent public housing only if they can prove their residence in the structures prior to June 1, 1982, and do not own private properties elsewhere.

They must also have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years, although the rule was relaxed last May to allow those who do not fulfil it to be allocated refurbished vacant flats in older rental estates.

Those who do not meet all the criteria are rehoused in temporary housing areas in the New Territories, if they are genuinely homeless. There is no cash compensation.

What is more, the dwellers of the illegal structures are charged for the cost of demolishing their own homes if the job is done by government workers.

It is not hard to see why dwellers of rooftop structures in two Tsuen Wan buildings, who have been making vociferous protests in the past two months against their evictions, are so unhappy with the terms they are offered.

Now that the hillside squatters have been largely rehoused, the authorities have turned their attention to illegal rooftop dwellings, which were previously tolerated.

Yet, limited resources have obliged the Buildings Department to take action first against those which pose an imminent danger to public safety or were major contravention of the building code.

The revelation that the department is taking no action against an illegal structure in a building where the Secretary for Housing, Dominic Wong Shing-wah, lives is a case in point.

The structure is being spared for the time being because it is not high on the department's priority.

Understandably, the Tsuen Wan rooftop dwellers found this argument hard to swallow, because their structures were demolished on safety grounds after they had existed for some 20 years.

Some became aware their dwellings were illegal only recently, even though they had bought it for good money, paid rates and been barred from applying for public housing because of it.

While ignorance of the law is no excuse for flouting it, something needs to be done because of the magnitude of the problem.

There are tens of thousands of illegal structures and many of the dwellers are still under the wrong impression that their dwellings are legal because they have been paying rates and property tax.