Shantytowns face hard home truths

By Fu Lei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-13 07:43
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 Patch-up efforts landing locals in trouble

HONG KONG - Cheung Kam received a summons to appear at magistrates' court in April.

The letter stated that the Sheung Shui shanty resident was to answer charges of "failing to comply" with Hong Kong's building authority - or, in other words, patching up her rundown house with concrete and bricks.

Under rules introduced following a comprehensive survey on all "squatter structures" in 1982, any change of building materials or any expansion to a shanty will lead to demolition.

Residents are banned from mending their wooden or sheet iron homes with "permanent materials", such as bricks or concrete.

"Shantytown residents are basically all grassroots," said district councilor Hau Kam-lam in Sheung Shui, which is five minutes from the Lo Wu border crossing in the New Territories.

"A warning letter is enough to make them nervous, let alone a summons," he said.

Hau has helped a number of people in the North District this year after they were either warned or sued over repairs to their houses.

"There is conflict between the old rules and new circumstances," he explained. "Wooden planks, which were once easy to acquire, are now very hard to come by. They are not safe, either.

"People just want to patch up their homes with safe, cheap and acquirable materials. However, that's not allowed," he added.

Even if residents plan to use the original materials, they have to apply in advance to the Special Administrative Region's local squatter control office.

In a letter to the judge hearing Cheung's case, Hau wrote: "Even when there were applicants, the government, due to a lack of manpower, did not actively process those cases, putting them off indefinitely. It's frequently heard that some shanties collapse in gales or downpours, risking the residents' lives and property."

Lau Kong-wah, a legislative councilor, raised the issue with Carrie Lam, the SAR's development secretary, on July 7. In a written reply, Lam wrote: "We have no plan to alter the policy on squatter clearance and control."

Lau, who in an interview with China Daily in October promised to make the changes happen, said: "I will propose to loosen the regulation in the next one or two months, allowing residents to repair their houses with more solid materials."

But as shanties fall into disrepair, residents can only wait.

Lam said in a speech in the Legislative Council on Oct 28 that she was reminded by Albert Ho, a legislative councilor, that if the government does not resettle or compensate shantytown residents now, it could be fraught with difficulties at the next stage.

However, commenting on public reaction to policies that may be set in future, she added: "It's not acceptable to say we are robbing dwellers of their properties. After all, squatters have neither ownership nor land rights."

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