THE increasing number of abandoned and derelict houses is a grave concern that affects both urban and rural areas.
And it is no secret that local governments – Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and local councils of Selangor – are struggling to deal with the matter due to legality issues and bureaucracy that hamper them in acting on situations where there is an immediate threat to a neighbour.
There are thousands of abandoned houses in Kuala Lumpur city alone that pose a health risk to the public.
Unoccupied houses left abandoned for a long period of time can become a health hazard and pose a threat to the community, especially immediate neighbours.
Apart from the deteriorating condition of the building making it dangerous, such as to children playing nearby, thick undergrowth makes a perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying vermin and dangerous wild animals like snakes aside from all sorts of creepy crawlies.
Unkempt units can also be easily turned into a den for drug addicts and vagrants.
Sweet home turned nightmare
It started with cockroaches. The pest made their way from an abandoned house next door into the kitchen of Devi Arumugam’s double-storey terrace house in Happy Garden, Kuala Lumpur.
And soon after that, Devi’s pet cat started dragging in rats which the feline had caught from the neighbour’s house.
Then a family of musang pandan (Asian Palm Civet) started creating a ruckus in the middle of the night with their endless scurrying and screeching on the rooftop keeping Devi’s entire family awake.
Apart from the pests, she then had to deal with fallen tree branches, overgrown vegetation and shrubs from next door creeping into her upstairs bedroom through the windows and along the electrical wiring system outside their house.
And on top of all that, one of Devi’s daughters contracted dengue fever.
Although the mother of five could not be certain if the dengue was the result of her neighbour’s messy garden, she had her suspicion.
All this happened after Devi’s elderly neighbour passed away last year and the house fell into disrepair.
“No one has been here this year to clean up the place and it now poses a health risk to my family, ’’ said Devi.
She noted that the house was missing some doors and had holes on the roof area exposing the building’s interior to the elements.
“We are worried about termites and other pest problems which can be costly and dangerous to my family, ’’ she said, adding that she had since spent more than a thousand ringgit to engage a pest control company and a gardener to keep the pests and weeds away.
When Devi called the local Fire and Rescue Services Department for help in removing the wild animals, she was informed that the personnel did not have authority to enter a private property without permission unless there was a fire.
“I then called DBKL and they sent a team to inspect. They took pictures and I have not heard from them since.
“I am scared that the structure may collapse or a snake or drug addict may choose to hide there, ” she added.
Recourse for affected neighbours
For those living next to an abandoned house, there is recourse.
When an abandoned house poses a nuisance to neighbours, DBKL will issue a notice under Section 82 of the Local Government Act 1976 to the owner to remove the problem.
“The public can lodge a complaint with the council to remove the nuisance, ” said DBKL Health and Environment Department director Datin Dr Noor Akma Shabuddin.
She said DBKL would trace the owner through the Federal Territories Land and Mines Office which collected quit rent on properties, or through DBKL’s Property Management and Valuation Department based on assessment billing.
“If the owner’s address is in Kuala Lumpur, we will issue them notice to clear the property in seven days. If they are living outside of Kuala Lumpur, we give them two weeks to do so.”
She added that DBKL would issue a compound if the said owner failed to comply with the notice.
For the owners who refuse to comply, DBKL will have to go in and clean up the premises so that it does not become a health risk to the public.
The local authority will then bill the owners of the offending property for the cost of clean-up.
Under Section 74 of the Local Government Act, the fine is RM1,000 or an imprisonment of not exceeding six months or both, plus a fine of not more than RM100 for every day that the offence continues after conviction.
Pragmatically, it is unlikely that a jail sentence will be imposed and the offender will only get fined, an amount that the affected neighbours say does not correspond to the problems they face living next to derelict houses.
Furthermore, justice may not be swift due to cost of prosecution and delays in the court system.
In most cases of abandoned properties, the owners have passed away or migrated and their next of kin are not interested in the property or willing to pay the fines when compounded.
In the event that the assessment bills are not paid, the local authority can seize the property.
But this takes time. And meanwhile, families living beside abandoned houses face an immediate threat.
Solutions in National Land Code
The present options for recourse provided by DBKL do not eliminate the threats faced by a family living next to a derelict house.
How much resources – taxpayers’ money and manpower – does DBKL need to spend to track down the culprits just to get them to cut the grass?
Planning law expert Derek Fernandez said there was another option available, provided by the National Land Code 1965 (NLC).
The National Land Code covers all local authorities in Malaysia.
Fernandez, who recently presented a paper titled “Masalah Bangunan Terbiar dan Usang” (The Problem of Abandoned and Dilapidated Buildings) to the Selangor government, said the government should consider invoking the NLC to forfeit the land of such buildings.
“Abandoned and derelict buildings are a growing concern that affects both urban and rural areas and requires an effective solution.
“Sections 127 and 128 of the National Land Code allow alienated land to be forfeited by the State, ” he said.
He pointed out that there was an implied condition in all residential land titles that the owner of the land must erect a building on that land within two years and maintain the land in the same habitual state.
“Leaving a property over a long period of time in a derelict state, not habitable and posing a threat to public health and safety constitutes a breach of that implied condition, thereby rendering the land liable to be forfeited by the state in accordance with the NLC, ” he elaborated.
But the Land and Mines Office has been reluctant to exercise those powers and prefers to leave such matters to the local authorities like DBKL, which have limited powers.
Fernandez, who is also a Petaling Jaya City councillor, has long been pushing for the land office to utilise its forfeiture laws under the NLC.
But until they choose to do so, local authorities everywhere will have to continue with the time-consuming effort of searching for the owners of abandoned houses or their next-of-kin, issue a notice for them to clean up the property and probably having to repeat that process for the same property after a few months.
As such, Fernandez hopes that the Federal Territories Minister and the Kuala Lumpur mayor can advise the land office that the problem of abandoned buildings and houses is getting worse and that the land office should exercise the forfeiture powers under the NLC.
He believes it is by far the most effective method to stem the tide.
Alternatively, DBKL can increase the fine to an amount that will hurt the pockets of the offenders.
Tackle problem as a community
When contacted, safety activist Captain K. Bala said that based on his experience dealing with cases of trespassing in private properties, the local authorities are very reluctant to enter a private property even if there is an element of threat.
“There is a reluctance to bear the responsibility of entering a private property just in case something happens, and it can get ugly with legal issues, ” he said.
Bala advised communities facing issues with abandoned houses in their midst, to work with the Rukun Tetangga or Residents Association and DBKL to resolve the matter.
“There is a strength from numbers when a community is involved, ” he said.
His sentiments are echoed by Crime Prevention Foundation member SKK Naidu, who is also the chairman of Brickfields Rukun Tetangga.
Naidu feels that local authorities like DBKL should be given more enforcement bite to tackle such matters and that the fines that DBKL impose are far too low and not punitive in nature.
“It is within the purview of the Federal Territories Minister to push for a by-law with more punitive and deterrent measures against owners who allow their houses to become a health hazard that endanger the public.
“I think that each time DBKL has to go in and clean up private houses, the fine imposed on irresponsible houseowners should be at least RM5,000 for it to be effective, ” he said.
“It is unfair to expect the DBKL officers to be deployed just to clean up people’s houses when they should be focusing on other issues, ” he added.