Owners come home to misery and violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am

It should be one of the happiest times of a family's life, but moving into a new apartment complex on the mainland increasingly marks the start of a turbulent period.

Homeowners often come to blows with property managers and developers over a range of issues, including random fees, businesses operating in the complexes without homeowners' consent and homeowners being prevented from forming residential committees.

There are no official figures on the scale of the problem, but a recent Renmin University survey of mainly Beijing residential developments indicated such disputes had turned violent in more than a third of the compounds.

One person who has paid the price for representing residents' interests is Li Gang , a member of an informal homeowners' committee at Guangzhou's Huanan New City.

Five thugs stormed his home in mid-February and beat him up three days after he led hundreds of homeowners in a protest against the property management company's decision to disband its shuttle bus service. He was beaten so badly that he had to have his spleen removed.

'It is very clear who is behind the attack. What I did for the community as a rights activist offended the management firm,' he said. 'Before this happened to me, two flat owners were beaten by security guards in our block for our protest march during Lunar New Year.

'I had also received threatening phone calls. The caller said there would be 20 people sending funeral wreaths to my home if I took the lead in making trouble again.'

Neighbours said they saw a group rushing downstairs from Mr Li's home on the night of the attack, but the security guards on duty that night said they did not see anything suspicious.

The surveillance video camera that normally faces the entrance had been turned around to face a pillar, so no footage of the group was taken. Police officers investigating the attack also said they found no evidence to identify the assailants.

Another high-profile case involved a Hong Kong woman who was beaten up last year by security guards at her Shenzhen apartment building after she complained the property management company had built illegal structures in the flat compound.

She later filed a lawsuit against the company, but lost the case when the judge refused to hear testimony from her witnesses. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen intervened and the case was reopened.

Li Youcheng , the head of an owners' committee at Beijing's Taiping Garden, has not had the advantage of high-level help to resolve his case. He was beaten bloody in August for complaining about a lack of water supply equipment in his residential compound.

The committee is suing local authorities for not taking action when the homeowners petitioned for help.

'We don't have enough evidence to say the departments are behind the management firm. But at least they should do something when we reach out to them for justice,' he said. 'But the departments took no action. That's why we had to stage protests for our legitimate rights.'

Huang Weiping , head of Shenzhen University's Contemporary Chinese Political Research Institute, said property developers were huge revenue earners for local governments and the public had perceived a conflict of interest.

'Developers are touted as a huge revenue stream for local governments. As a result, it is widely believed by the public that the ambiguous relationship between the government and the industry undermines equity,' Professor Huang said.

'In many property lawsuits, local governments have been accused of dodging their responsibility by not taking action immediately after conflicts between homeowners and management firms.

'The attitudes of some departments encourage the violence. Property management firms do need oversight no matter whether they are embroiled in violence or not.'

He said conflicts between evicted residents and property firms would continue as long as residents' committees had no legal status.

Most recent lawsuits filed by residents' committees against property management firms and developers have been rejected by the courts because the homeowners' groups are not recognised under civil law.

Li Gang said they could not set up a legal residents' committee to represent property owners because they had not registered with the Civil Affairs Bureau, nor could they sue the management firm.

'The department required a stringent approval process and even asked us to get approval from the management firm. That's an impossible mission,' he said.

Homeowners also risk punishment from local governments for leading rallies. Shenzhen has released a new regulation to punish activists if five or more people petition the government.

The authorities said the regulation would help crack down on illegal protests. But Professor Huang said homeowners were going public with their grievances because they had no other way of safeguarding their property rights.