Onboard with Taipei's Rooftop Apartment Demolition Team

Onboard with Taipei's Rooftop Apartment Demolition Team
Credit: Morley J Weston

What you need to know

Illegal rooftop apartments are slowly being demolished, but many have learned to love them.

If there is anything more iconic to Taiwan’s urban outskirts than blinking betel nut signs, it might be the off-kilter corrugated-steel additions on nearly every rooftop. Dinglou Jiagai (頂樓加蓋), illegal rooftop apartments, have been a symptom of Taiwan’s urban expansion since the Japanese era, but a series of fires this year has led the government to take action.

On Nov. 24, 2017, nine people died in a fire in the Zhonghe neighborhood of New Taipei City, prompting reactions from Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫). Two foreign students also died in a fire on a Shilin rooftop apartment on Aug. 10.

Taipei and New Taipei were spurred into action and Dec. 8 began a new campaign against the apartments. Taipei’s government hasn’t shied away from mass demolitions in the past; Da’an Forest Park in downtown Taipei was carved out from a blighted neighborhood in the 1990s. Rooftop apartments are more difficult; they must be taken down with handheld tools in crowded neighborhoods and can affect the income of building owners.

Credit: Morley J Weston

The demolition team is under pressure to work quickly, but also must separate dangerous materials such as florescent light tubes and asbestos.

Not all rooftop apartments are illegal: many built decades ago have been registered with the government and are considered to be on the lighter side of a legal grey area. But the supply of illegal additions keeps going up – some estimates say that 22,000 rooms per year are built around the country. According to government statistics (which should be taken with a grain of salt), there are over 290,000 illegal structures in Taipei and New Taipei, of which about 1,500 have been demolished by the government. This latest round takes aim at another 205.

Demolition Men

Chen Jia-xing (陳嘉興) deputy director of the New Taipei City Illegal Construction Demolition Corps, told The News Lens that they were prioritizing wooden structures or apartments in densely populated areas of New Taipei such as the Sanchong and Zhonghe neighborhoods — the ones that would cause the most damage if they caught on fire.

With only two weeks notice, the team cuts off electricity and power to apartments and notifies residents to move out. Then the team begins to tear the place apart from the top down. A dozen workers take 10 days to demolish the building, working as quickly as possible to minimize disturbances to neighbors. One such demolition in Zhonghe was built on top of an elderly care facility. The sound of jackhammers and falling debris could be heard and felt from the ground floor.

Morley J Weston
A demolition worker with the New Taipei City Illegal Construction Demolition Corps prepares to take down a concrete wall.

Demolitions can also be dangerous, according to Chen, especially when the electrical work had been done in secret. “Parents send their kids to university but don’t give them enough money. The students live in these illegal apartments and string the cheapest extension cords and run whole kitchens out of a single ungrounded socket," he said. "Sometimes the electricity comes from another apartment and we have trouble tracing it to the source. We have to be careful not to start any fires when we are tearing these rooms down.”

These apartments are also often full of asbestos, a fireproof insulation material that can cause cancer and other diseases when inhaled.

In early December, the team demolished a four-story illegal construction that had been split into 158 separate apartments. Chen said, “They’re not even that cheap; people will still pay NT$5000-7000 (US$167-233) per month to live in one of these little rooms, but they have no level of safety. Landlords raise the price by adding AC and plumbing, but this usually isn’t installed correctly and can be quite dangerous.”

Earthquakes are another problem, both for building up and building out. A 2003 report found a lack of space between buildings increased vibrations during earthquakes, heightening the risk of collapse.

For Chen, the most frustrating part of his job is seeing how many people keep moving into these apartments. “Foreigners and people from out of town are often unaware of how dangerous these places are,” he said. “The government tries to reach out to people, but nobody listens.”

Rooftop Rebels

Taiwan doesn’t have a spectacular record for fire safety. According to government data, 134 people nationwide have died in fires so far in 2017 — twice that of Florida, a U.S. state with a similar population and urban/rural divide.

Shoddy electrical work is the biggest danger of living in an illegal apartment. – Christina Ho, Taipei City Fire Department

Christina Ho (何馨怡), a representative from the Taipei City Fire Department, said that shoddy electrical work is the biggest danger of living in an illegal apartment, adding that leaky roofs could easily compound the problem. These apartments are also separated from main stairwells by additional locked gates, meaning that firefighters often have a harder time getting to fires.

She said that in order to prevent disasters, people should pay attention to their electricity and gas use, make sure stairways were free of debris, ensure doors do not need a key to open from the inside, only rent apartments with more than one exit and have an escape plan. Taipei city has also been making efforts to ensure that every apartment has a smoke detector.

Landlords renting illegal apartments often have looser requirements and will sometimes rent for shorter periods of time and with a smaller security deposit. This goes both ways – tenants in these apartments have little recourse if they are ripped off by a landlord.

The ergonomics of these spaces are often attractive, offering more seclusion and balcony space than the typical Taipei high-rise. Tom from the U.S., who lived in a rooftop apartment for three of his 10 years in Taiwan, said, “Living in a rooftop apartment is one of my favorite things about Taiwan. It’s clearly not allowed, but everybody does it, and it’s just accepted by society.” He said his apartment was dominated by a balcony with a barbecue area and a wading pool.

Alice from the U.K has lived in rooftop apartments for 11 of her 16 years in Taipei. “I’m used to having outside space and an area to relax. We always had a garden growing up, and living in an apartment is a bit odd for me.” She said that she has always tried to be conscious of fire safety in Taiwan, making fire escape plans and ensuring that she had multiple points of egress. “Lots of legal apartments have been split up with wooden partitions. These are just as dangerous because there is rarely more than one way out.”

Morley J Weston
A patchwork of illegal rooftop wilderness stretches over New Taipei City.

The governments of Taipei and New Taipei are forced to tear down enough rooms to make a statement. But realistically, they have a long way to go before they can put a tiny dent in New Taipei’s rooftop shantytowns. From a hole in the wall opened by the team in Zhonghe, a whole patchwork of dinglou jiagai could be seen between the high rises.

One can only hope that some day soon, benevolent landlords and eagle-eyed city officials can come together and help ensure that everyone in Taipei has access to safe, affordable housing. Until then, renters have little choice but to look out for their safety, plan an escape route, badger landlords to install smoke detectors and not run washing machines off small-gauge extension cords.

TNL Editor: David Green