Fri, Oct 29, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Remake Taipei with social housing

By Sabina Sun 孫瑞穗

The Taipei City Government will soon make available a piece of land formerly occupied by the Air Force General Headquarters and lying just down the road from a luxury housing complex called The Palace, for the construction of social housing that will be rented out to medium and low-income households.

As soon as this news got out, it stirred up controversy. Some groups want the original buildings and greenery to be preserved, while only a few support the social housing project. However, social housing is an urban planning issue that needs urgent attention.

The need for accessible housing for all was highlighted in Taiwan when homeless people took to the streets in protest in 1989, but 20 years later, no progress has been made. Now, at last, we have a chance and a suitable space to try and do something about it.

Social housing was first proposed by urban reformers toward the end of the 19th century. Fleeing from industrial centers where workers toiled endlessly day and night, they strove to build utopian communities based on socialist ideals. The most important contribution they left to later generations was social housing, sometimes incorporating communal kitchens and other facilities that provided for collective consumption.

Social housing was based on public ownership of land, while buildings constructed on the land were made available for public use. This enabled citizens with medium and low incomes to find affordable accommodations for rent. Relieved for a time from the burden of high real estate prices, such people were able to live in the inner cities.

Social housing should be a long-term policy for local -governments, not an act of charity. It should be a means of genuinely intervening in the property market, restraining real estate prices and preventing speculation.

The key point, therefore, should not be the question of whether to build social housing on the area nicknamed “the Little Palace,” but that we need policies that support social housing provision. The Little Palace need only be a symbolic beginning and symbolic landscape that demonstrates the city government’s determination to restrain housing prices. If, on the other hand, the Little Palace is just a one-off attempt to fob off people’s longing for a place to live, it will be like throwing a single scrap of meat to a pack of hungry lions. That would be a sign not just of insincerity, but of incompetence.

Singapore and Hong Kong, like Taiwan, are counted among the four Asian tiger economies. After the end of British colonial rule, in Singapore’s case, and while the British were still there, in Hong Kong’s case, the governments of those two cities implemented economic policies that led to rapid development, but also created wide gaps between rich and poor.

In order to prevent the resentment of migrants from the countryside and other workers from boiling over into political crises, the Singaporean and Hong Kong governments built a lot of public housing that was made cheaply available.

These two examples are models of state -intervention in the housing market, but their property rights and usage still presume a system of private ownership. Consequently, they are susceptible to being caught up in unending market competition. The main point about the kind of social housing we are discussing here is that the land is owned by the state and buildings constructed on that land are made available for use by the public. Fixed-term rental contracts are used to prevent monopoly.

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