Residents affected by an urban renewal project in Sanchong District (三重), New Taipei City (新北市), yesterday protested against a forced land seizure and a demolition that are scheduled to take place tomorrow.
“This has been our home for the past 50 years. We bought the plot of land from a local shenminghui (“immortal association,” 神明會) in the 1960s and built the house with a government-issued construction permit,” Hsu Su-hua (許素華), speaking for her family, told a press conference.
“The government cannot just take away our home and land. Where are we supposed to live?” Hsu said.
In a departure from most other cases of land expropriation — which usually involve property owners refusing to give up their property or a disagreement between the government and landowners over compensation — the government in this case does not recognize the Hsus’ ownership of the plot of land, and thus considers the house to be illegal.
Shenminghui are traditional non-governmental organizations created by followers of a certain deity that help in the handling of religious rites for the deity. The existence of shenminghui around the country goes back centuries.
Such organizations usually own properties — which are donated to a deity by its followers — and revenue from renting the properties is used to cover expenses at temples or festivities.
The issue that makes the Hsus’ case unique is that, traditionally, private individuals may “buy” a plot of land from shenminghui, but since the land is considered to be owned by immortals, ownership is generally not transferred to the “buyer” and remains the property of the god or goddess.
“We didn’t think the ownership issue would be a problem because that’s how things have worked for centuries,” Hsu said, adding that now because the land is being “sold” in the modern sense, the “purchase” her family has made is no longer valid and is not protected under the modern legal system.
Even worse for the family is that the local government said that it is unable prove that the house in which the family currently resides is the house built five decades ago when the family obtained a construction permit, Hsu said.
“This is not an issue that is unique to the Hsu family; shenminghui own hundreds of hectares of land. If the legal gray area remains, there will be more such cases,” attorney Chan Wen-kai (詹文凱) told the press conference.
Lin Yu-lin (林佑璘), an official representing the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency, said that under the law, it is a dispute over land ownership and thus the agency is not authorized to get involved in the dispute.
“However, there’s a clause in the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) that authorizes the government to give a helping hand to people affected by urban renewal projects,” he said, adding: “We will help to bring the two sides together for negotiations based on this clause.”