Taipei, Taiwan – Mr Du lived in a rental apartment in Taipei alone for several years while suffering from mouth cancer. After he died, his landlady swiftly went on a door-knock mission, informing the neighbours, including this writer, that he did not in fact pass away in the apartment – but rather while he had been out on a one-day joyride in eastern Taiwan.
The landlady breathed a sigh of relief. If Du’s body had been found in the house, the value of her property would have taken a thorough beating.
In Taiwan’s capital Taipei, a real estate investment frenzy driven by affluent China-based expatriates has made the average house cost more than 15 times the average annual household income. It goes without saying, then, that many low and middle-income Taiwanese have been having a hard time finding a roof over their heads.
But for Taiwan’s elderly, the task of renting a home is almost insurmountable. As in many superstitious Asian societies, many landlords fear the death of a tenant could bring a revengeful ghost, who would then turn the property into a hot potato on the housing market.
Homeowners worry that what could be seen as an unnatural death drives down the value of their property by around 30 percent depending on the location.
Just one percent of Taiwan’s landlords accept a single senior citizen as their tenant, according to a recently released survey by the Tsuei Ma Ma Foundation for Housing and Social Service, a Taipei-based non-governmental organisation. Respondents cited their fear of “emergencies” when explaining why they would refuse over-65-year-old tenants.
“You might think that this is because landlords suspect that the elderly may not come up with the rent money, but that’s mostly not the reason for old people to be turned down,” said Huang Pin-pin, a researcher with local real estate brokerage Sinyi Realty Inc.
“Instead, the homeowners worry that what could be seen as an unnatural death drives down the value of their property by around 30 percent depending on the location.”
Her colleague, Tseng Chun-der, added the landlords also believe that “a death of a tenant in the rental home is too troublesome to deal with vis-a-vis the authorities”.
82-year-old, living in his car
The ordeal of 82-year-old Mr Muchi is a case in point. For five years, Muchi has in vain tried to find a place to rent – even though he has a monthly income of 14,000 Taiwanese dollars ($460). Muchi also has health insurance and is eligible for some 6,000 Taiwanese dollars ($197) in municipal rental subsidy. That amount alone nearly suffices for a small rental room in the cheaper areas of Taipei.
“I had to live in my car until October last year, when the people from Hondao [senior citizen NGO] found me a place for 8,000 dollars [$263], of which they shoulder 3,000 [$99],” Muchi told Al Jazeera. “Without Hondao, I would surely still be living in the car.”
His new place, which is actually classified as a commercial property, not residential, is clean and neat and has two things Muchi lacked for years – a bathroom and a closet.
Seventy-eight-year-old Mr Sun has not been so lucky. In September, he spoke out at a press conference held by representatives of various social groups and opposition lawmakers in Taiwan’s legislature. After having lived for six years in an affordable rental apartment, Sun’s landlord told him to leave, also using the notorious justification of “fearing emergencies”.
“I needed a long time to find a new place, but once I moved in my neighbour started piling reeking scrap next to my door,” Sun said. He said his landlord did nothing about it, effectively forcing him to move on again. “But landlords placing rental ads in the newspapers hung up the phone as soon as they heard my old voice,” Sun said. “Now I live in a basement so humid and dark that the landlord could not possibly find a tenant younger than me.”
Complicating the situation is that the age requirement to qualify for a Taipei social housing unit is 20 to 45 years old, while designated senior apartments in the city often go for as much as 18,000 Taiwanese dollars ($592) per month.
The ‘ghost factor’
Just how far Taiwan’s landlords can go to protect the value of their property against the “ghost factor” was highlighted by a case in August, in which a 75-year-old man committed suicide by leaping off a residential building.
|Mr Muchi’s new flat [Jens Kastner/Al Jazeera]|
He fell onto a veranda that, though belonging to the high-rise complex, was only accessible through an apartment owned by a man. When police and rescue workers requested entry into the man’s property to access the veranda, he refused, citing the traditional belief that moving a corpse through a house would be inauspicious, and would cause the price of his property to plummet.
The district prosecutors then employed three locksmiths to open the man’s door. It took nine hours to take the body to the morgue.
Reflecting that Taiwanese society by and large accepts the apartment owner’s behaviour, the judiciary reportedly let him off the hook – even though there had been a remote possibility that the battered body on his veranda was still alive.
Chiu Hei-yuan, a research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost research institute, told Al Jazeera this macabre story is hardly surprising to Taiwanese.
“If a suicide or a killing happens in a house, and also if a lonely old person dies there unnoticed, people here say it’s no good, and they are so sensitive to such incidents that everybody would know about it,” he said. “The home owner might then resort to hiring a Taoist priest for exorcism rituals, but people will still be afraid.”
Chiu stressed the curse will hold “forever”, explaining that Taiwan’s ghosts are always evil, even if they come from someone who was a good person while living.
That said, Chiu said if someone doesn’t fear ghosts, “he can purchase by auction a nice house for a very low price in Taiwan”.