In April, the Taiwan Community Living Consortium held an international symposium on social housing in Taichung. A group of people concerned with the right of abode had the idea of forming a consortium aimed at promoting social housing and I was invited to take part in integrating the efforts of the social welfare and housing groups. In August, the consortium was established and in just six months, the social housing issue has received as much attention as retirement pensions, which was something we never expected.
The consortium originally only hoped to turn the support from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Taipei mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) into pressure on Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the party’s Sinbei City mayoral candidate, Eric Chu (朱立倫). We never expected that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) would suddenly pay attention to the issue.
When Ma met with members of the consortium, he expressed support and urged the ministries concerned to submit a plan of action within one month. As a result, Minister of the Interior Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) said that within two weeks, three or four plots of land would be selected in the Greater Taipei area to build social housing for more than 1,000 families. Hau also piped up with plans to build a social housing project on the site of the former Air Force general headquarters, a prime piece of real estate in downtown Taipei.
So far, there have been both positive and negative developments. On one hand, social housing has become part of the election campaigns, which is good for raising awareness. On the other hand, however, politicians have been making unrealistic promises that could make things worse. If we look at the history of social housing, it is easy to see why I am worried.
In 1957, the government started to build public housing, but this ended in failure. In 1972, a plan to help the needy listed building houses for the poor as a goal. This was the beginning of building affordable housing in the country. The decision to only rent and not sell the houses was in line with the spirit of social housing, but limiting it to only low-income families went against the concept. Four of these buildings for poorer people, housing 1,544 families, still remain in Taipei today.
Then in 1994, when former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was running for Taipei mayor, I suggested that public housing should only be rented and not sold. After Chen was elected, this policy was enacted and this is why there is now rented public housing in Taipei for more than 3,000 families. In May 1999, the DPP amended part of its party program incorporating my suggestion to include building public housing and renting it to lower income earners to lower the cost of housing and protect the public’s right of abode.
After the DPP took over the national government, it worked on amending the social welfare policy, which was passed and implemented by the Cabinet in 2004, formally making social housing a national policy. On May 24, 2005, the Cabinet listed social housing as part of a comprehensive housing policy. This later gave birth to the draft housing act. However, since the KMT government took over in 2008, the Cabinet has been sitting on the draft. This is also the reason why Su and Tsai support the idea of social housing.
It is a good thing that all political parties support social housing. However, when thinking about the building of and access to social housing, we have to consider first who needs it. All relatively economically disadvantaged people do, and not only low-income families. This includes all disadvantaged groups — meaning, not only elderly people without a place of their own or the physically and mentally handicapped, but also single-parent families, victims of domestic violence, Aborigines, those who suffer from mental illnesses, those with HIV/AIDS, disaster victims and vagrants.
These people all have different needs and we cannot use the old public housing standards. In addition, management plans for social housing must be made. In this regard, there are both advantages and disadvantages to entrusting management to a non-profit organization or using a contract-based social housing landlord. Lastly, the government also has to consider the financial planning necessary for such a project.
Saying that land will be found within two weeks, a proposal will be submitted within a month and that houses will be completed within a year before they understand all these issues is a sign of sloppy policymaking. Small wonder that the idea to build a social housing complex in downtown Taipei was just thrown out there.
Social housing must be a public service package that is distributed and free of vilification. Such projects should provide a convenient living area and must be of a quality that communities can accept. There is no reason why social housing cannot be built on the site of the former Air Force headquarters, but a policy that has not been well thought out merely becomes an exploitation of the concept. Once the elections are over, it will be boxed up and never heard of again.
If the social housing project does not go through, political hacks will be able to shift the blame by saying they never owned the land where the project is being proposed and argue that a social consensus has yet to be reached on the issue. These are some of the reasons why people are criticizing the social housing plan and the fact that such a botched project will be undertaken on such expensive land when the government could sell the land to build more social housing facilities somewhere else.
Lin Wan-yi is a professor in the Department of Social Work at National Taiwan University.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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