Homeowners losing battle for their rights

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am


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Deng Yaoxiong calls himself a laoguang, the colloquial term for a native of Guangzhou, who was born and grew up in Liwan, one of the city's historic and most attractive neighbourhoods.

Until July 1997, Deng lived in a flat inherited from his father. Employed as a driver, his income was modest, but owning his tiny flat in an established district with a good hospital and schools meant life was secure.

But everything changed one summer 13 years ago. Wanjingde, a developer that locals believed was well connected with the then Guangdong party chief, Xie Fei, bought the site where Deng and other residents lived from the city government.

The developer promised to turn a dilapidated area on Daihe Road (now Kangwang Road) into a modern community. Then the government posted a notice at the main gate of their complex setting a deadline for the 420 families who had been living in the area for generations to move out. Neither the authorities nor Wanjingde explained their plans, and the residents didn't express their dismay.

'It was an order,' Deng said. 'In those days, everyone trusted the government. Radical actions were outside our imagination.'

Despite pledges they could return after the redevelopment, Deng and all his former neighbours are still unable to move back to the area where their parents and grandparents had grown up. Over time they have accepted the harsh reality that their properties are gone forever, but a dozen of them continue to fight for fair compensation.

In the massive redevelopments transforming mainland cities, the experiences of Deng and his fellow residents are relatively commonplace, but their complaints are rarely exposed in the domestic or foreign media, nor do they become major public issues.

Hu Xingdou, a social economic expert from the Beijing Institute of Technology, estimates at least 20 million to 30 million people in urban areas have been forced to leave their homes because of redevelopment.

Until recently, the worst affected lived in the old districts of first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But as developers increasingly target the second- and third-tier cities, more people living in the long-established districts of the smaller cities are also losing their homes.

'They are victims of China's blind pursuit of quick economic growth,' Hu said. He added that he did not see how the unfair compensation, and sometimes forced evictions, for redevelopment would end.

'I'm sure the actual size of the affected population affected is much bigger, but 20 to 30 million is a widely accepted estimation.'

Hu said mayors, town chiefs and other urban administrators were keen to champion new development plans to demonstrate their vision and ability. In the rapid turnover of these bureaucrats, new officials devised or adopted their own plans, rather than building on the existing blueprints of their predecessors.

'The job tenure of these administrative officials in a given place is getting shorter and shorter,' he said. 'As a result, there are endless developments and redevelopments.'

Hu said officials were also anxious to promote new urban-development plans because demolishing existing housing and building new apartments allowed them to report fast economic growth in their cities. The problem for residents was that they lacked negotiating power with officials and were often forced to accept compensation at rates below market values.

'Though the people don't like the offer, most of them accept the compensation because there is no other option,' Hu said. 'Only a small proportion refuse and only then we see violent evictions that sometimes result in casualties.'

Early in April, at least seven people were seriously injured when a dozen villagers from the city of Emeishan in Sichuan tried to burn themselves to death to stop what they called an illegal land grab by the authorities.

More than 1,100 households in Baoning village, in the town of Eshan, have been forced to give up their houses and farmland since 2001 to make way for a 2 billion yuan (HK$2.3 billion) luxury resort and apartment complex.

The dispute turned violent in February when township officials began construction, forcibly driving farmers off their land. The city government said a dozen villagers attacked officials and firefighters with burning petrol.

In Liwan, Guangzhou, Deng said the government promised that all displaced residents would receive a monthly rent subsidy of 90 yuan until December 1999, when they could return to the old neighbourhood and move into brand new flats. Returning residents would be required to pay market rates for the extra floor space provided in these new flats compared with their original homes. And if Wanjingde failed to complete the project on time, it was required to pay residents 10 yuan a day until it was finished, he said.

For Deng, the head of a family of five, this meant he received a monthly rent subsidy of 450 yuan. However, he said he received the promised rent subsidies only for the first year; the daily penalty for the developer's failure to complete the project never materialised.

Deng and a dozen other frustrated residents successfully sued the developer in 2000 but were still unable to claim rent subsidies owed to them. Then, in desperation, they opted for more radical tactics.

More than 400 families staged two sit-in protests near their former homes between 2003 and 2006. While the families continued their fight for full compensation, city officials began offering reduced payments in return for residents abandoning their claims, so the government could resell the land to another developer. More than 200 families agreed to forgo their rehousing claim, according to He Guoguang, another affected resident.

The city government eventually bundled the Daihe Road site with another two plots for auction in 2007, on the grounds that the original developer did not have the resources to execute the redevelopment contract. China Vanke, the mainland's largest publicly listed developer, took the three sites after paying 880 million yuan. Information obtained by Deng showed the disputed site alone cost 340 million yuan.

Named Superior Mansion, the project features luxury living in the heart of the neighbourhood, with a full range of amenities including a swimming pool, gym and sky garden. The cheapest unit, a 60 square metre flat, costs 1.6 million yuan.

China Vanke has no responsibility to compensate and rehouse the original 420 families from the area, but the company is aware of their complaints.

'They have some activities near our site, we know who they are and what they want,' a China Vanke spokesman said. 'We feel sorry for them but there isn't anything we can do ... What had happened on the land before we bought it is unrelated to us and settling with them is not in the contract.

'So there is nothing we can do apart from expressing our sympathy.'

Meanwhile, the government continues its effort to persuade residents to abandon their claims for full compensation and alternative housing. Only 40 families still insisted on compensation, He said.

'Please don't name me,' said one resident who agreed to abandon his claim. 'I have already given up my house. If they find out I talked to the press, they may not give me the cash compensation.'

The resident said he decided to take the developer to court in 2005. The case ended in 2008 with the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court rejecting his demand for a replacement house. Earlier in proceedings, before the case was transferred to the city court, a judge from the Liwan People's Court, a lower court, suggested a private meeting, the resident said.

At the meeting, the judge said he should give up his claim. 'He told me he was about to write the judgment and he wanted to talk to me first, but I rejected him,' the resident said.

Shortly after he lost the case, court officials suggested he should file an application to formally abandon the claim to be rehoused so he could receive cash compensation. The compensation offered was 4,400 yuan per square metre, based on the size of the unit he used to own. This was the 1997 market price.

'Since the court has ruled that I could not get a replacement house, I have no legal grounds to pursue my case,' he said. 'If you ask me, I say I don't want to give up my claim. But you cannot fight the government.'

The resident said local officials and government-appointed lawyers were given incentives to convince residents to accept a settlement. 'Some street cadres told me they could get a 30,000 yuan allowance if they could persuade one family to give up their claim for a replacement apartment, and the lawyers would receive an extra 300 to 500 yuan on top of their usual legal fee.'

Some settlements were better than others. On top of the 4,400 yuan per square metre, some residents got an extra 3,000 yuan per square metre if they waived their right to the promised rent subsidies and penalty payment the original developer was required to pay for failure to rehouse them.

A spokeswoman for the Liwan People's Court, which was given the responsibility to resolve the disputes, said the court had received many applications to relinquish the housing claims since 2006. There were now four cases before the court.

'In general, they can't ask for compensation and rehousing because this is unreasonable,' she said. 'If they want compensation, they have to give up rehousing. If they insist on rehousing, they will not get it because there is no way it can be done. All the cases we have received asked us to allow them to take compensation and give up their rehousing rights.'

Despite the court's decision, Deng refuses to settle.

'I will not give up my claim,' he said. 'That was my house. If they want to buy our property, they have to pay a decent price, the market rate.'

Wang Cailiang, a Beijing-based rights lawyer specialising in housing demolition, said the Liwan arrangement was absurd.

'If they can't honour their promise on rehousing these people, they should compensate them at current market rates. What they are doing now equals stealing someone's house.'

For Wang, the endless land and housing disputes arise because of the absence of the rule of law.

'We have laws but they are not implemented. Our media are not allowed to report the people's plight, so people are forced to take radical action to safeguard their rights.'

Eviction notice

Redevelopers routinely force mainlanders out of their homes

The minimum number of city-dwellers who have been relocated is: 20m