TAIPEI – Taiwan’s deadliest fire in 26 years has brought to light its lack of laws regulating safety inspections and the perils of living as an impoverished renter.
The fire at a dilapidated building in Kaohsiung city last Thursday (Oct 14), said to have happened after a woman lit incense and left it unattended, killed 46 people and injured 41 others.
The next day, President Tsai Ing-wen acknowledged Taiwan’s lax building management regulations after visiting the injured victims, and called for her administration to take inventory of similar old residential and commercial buildings and update urban renewal plans and safety regulations.
Netizens who had been to the building Cheng Chung Cheng – dubbed the “ghost tower” before the fire – posted photos and videos online, showing deserted floors with garbage and debris littered across hallways and stairwells.
Constructed 40 years ago, the 13-storey building once bustled with life and activity and housed karaoke bars, dance halls, an ice skating rink, a movie cinema and restaurants. Following a fire in 1999 which left no casualty, some businesses opted to end their leases and the building gradually fell to neglect.
It then became known for its cheap, small rental residential units. Most of the residents were reportedly older people or those with lower income.
At the time of the fire, there were some 120 rental units. A room can be rented for as low as NT$3,500 (S$169) each month, while a government-subsidised one-room apartment costs NT$10,000 (S$482).
The residents, when facing developers who wanted to renovate the building in the past, resisted as they had nowhere else to go.
For old buildings constructed prior to the implementation of Taiwan’s fire emergency laws in 1995 – passed after the deadliest fire in history that killed 64 – construction companies gave less attention to escape routes and other fire safety precautions.
Many investors purchased units in Cheng Chung Cheng that they renovated and rented to those on a budget, but the renovations left hallways too narrow to be safe. Firefighters told the media that they had to navigate the cramped corridors that were filled with items the renters discarded.
These factors, coupled with what nearby residents say was the local government’s delay in demolishing the old building, resulted in the extent of damage and loss of lives in the fire.
President Tsai said the central government will work with local governments to invest more effort in redeveloping old buildings. The same day, Deputy Interior Minister Hua Ching-chun followed up with a promise that plans for these buildings will be announced this week.
In the past, government-led urban renewal projects had been focused on government-owned properties, old social housing or military family housing, said Mr Hua. “But after the president’s announcement, (older) residential and commercial buildings will become a part of future urban redevelopment projects.”
In recent years, local governments have been diving into urban redevelopment projects, offering incentives to residents in older buildings and neighbourhoods to get them to move out.But some protested and refused to leave.
The fire has put the heads of cities and counties across Taiwan on high alert.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai announced last Friday the launch of a task force to look into potential government negligence in the deadly fire, and the city government will be giving compensation to families of those who died, as well as stipends for the injured.
The Taipei City government ordered a count of all old mixed-used buildings.
According to the city government, there are at least 124 residential-commercial buildings that are over 30 years old in Taipei. Apple Daily has reported nearly 1,000 such buildings across Taiwan’s six largest cities.