When is a house not a house? It may sound almost philosophical to argue over the meaning of a word but in Hong Kong's crazy property market, billions of dollars depend on it.
You have to give it to the developer who has the gall to claim that no land premium needed to be paid to tear down five low-rise houses and build a 26-storey block in their place in Kowloon City. Why? Because Fully Profit (Asia), a tiny developer with grand ambitions, argued against the Lands Department in court that a building, however tall, could still qualify as a house.
A lot rode on this court challenge, as other developers were hoping this dubious point would stick and salivating over massive profits if Fully Profit won. In the event, despite its name, the company will prove less profitable as the Court of Final Appeal ruled against it yesterday.
The court decided that, put simply, the proposed building does not really qualify as a house in terms of the original land lease.
Tissues please, for our developers. You can already hear their cries of outrage and anguish at seeing easy profits slip from their fingertips. The rest of us may rejoice.
After decades of conditioning our sense of space to make us pay for inflated shoeboxes, we at least shouldn't have to put up with their assaults on common language and the meanings of simple words. But just think, Fully Profit almost got away with it.
Under the 1952 government lease, the 22,800 sq ft site is divided into 20 plots. Only one house is allowed to be built on one plot, according to subsequent leases. The developer was appointed by the land owner, who was not named in court, in 2006 to replace the five existing houses with a 26-storey block.
After the director of lands turned against the company and demanded a land premium, Fully Profit took the government to court. It lost in the Court of First Instance but won on appeal. But thanks to a heavy dose of common sense from the judges of the Court of Final Appeal, we have been spared the horrifying spectacle of watching developers gorging themselves on profits from taking down cheap houses without having to pay extras. That would have been too obscene even for Hong Kong.