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September 27, 2017

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Wang home demolition goes deeper than majority vs. minority

The Wang family, whose home of six generations was torn down yesterday to make way for a controversial urban renewal project, was described both as a "stubborn nail"(釘子戶, a neologism borrowed from the mainland for people turning down offers to sell their homes to developers) and as civil rights martyrs.

Supporters of the urban renewal project in Taipei's Shilin District pointed out that over 90 percent of homeowners in the effected area had agreed to the developer's terms, arguing that Wang's refusal to strike a deal resulted in the delay of the development and caused undue trouble for the majority of owners awaiting their new homes to be built.

Supporters of the Wang family, on the other hand, slammed the developer for twisting the Wangs' intention of merely keeping their ancestral home, and painted them as greedy homeowners making a stand simply to bargain for a better price. They also pointed out that the 90 percent agreement rate was the result of "creative rezoning" of the project area to exclude other naysayers, creating the illusion that the Wangs were the only obstacle to urban development and a "public enemy."

At first glance, it appears the case can be distilled into a fundamental argument on the balance between individual rights and the equally important rights for the members of a community to a better environment. People should have the right to their homes, but can a city truly move forward if every development requires 100 percent approval from the residents?

That, however, is not the key question in the case of the Wang family. The true problem highlighted in this instance is the practice of Taipei's urban renewal regulations which put the developers in the driver's seat.

With unequal advantages in resources, the developers have a much better chance to obtain information, utilize laws to their benefit and try to turn public opinion in their favor. Such actions are actually expected. After all, developers survive from their profits and they won't be competitive if they do not try to maximize their profit through legal means. But that's precisely why developers should not be the sole party initiating and implementing urban renewal projects.

Local residents should be allowed more say in the decision-making as well as the negotiation processes in urban renewal projects, with the government acting as overseer and developers retreating to the role of professional advisors and, well, developers. In the Wangs' case, for example, the family should be negotiating not only with the developer alone but with a committee also comprising representatives of the Taipei government and residents. That can guarantee negotiations between the parties on more equal terms, better protecting the rights of the absolute majority while eliminating the possibility of some developers hiding their strong-arming behind "majority opinions."

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