On Tuesday, the Ministry of Finance’s Public Property Administration unexpectedly called off a -surface-rights auction for a plot of state-owned land designated to be used for public housing units for senior citizens in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖). The project was scrapped after nearby residents protested that the project would mean more foreign maids and frequent ambulance calls to their neighborhood, thus impacting their quality of life and property values.
Coincidentally, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) told residents of the city’s Songshan District (松山) last Sunday that the city government would not move forward with a Ministry of the Interior-designated social housing project in Songshan if local residents object to it. Despite this, the re-elected mayor said on Tuesday that he was not backtracking on his campaign promises about building affordable housing and that he would like to engage in more discussions with local residents about the issue.
While the government has plans to build 1,661 affordable housing units on five plots of state-owned land, which were carefully selected throughout the greater Taipei region as a way to create a model for similar projects in the future, the recent backlashes against affordable housing for the poor, the elderly and minority groups have clearly unmasked what people and the government already knew, but ignored: stigmatization. This, coupled with the prevailing prejudices about people who live in housing projects pose the greatest challenge to the government and the nation as a whole.
Even a stubborn politician like Hau, renowned for his determination to build the “Little Palace” public housing complex in the center of the city despite objections from nearby residents and the central government, is now looking wishy-washy about such projects.
The public’s negative perception of public housing complexes as places associated with problems, such as inferior construction quality and poor public safety, do not come out of nowhere. These prejudices have been shaped and solidified by the government’s poor track record of constructing and maintaining public housing over the past 40 years.
As a result, even though most people would agree with the government’s plans to build public housing out of sympathy for their fellow citizens, when push comes to shove they strongly object to the idea of such projects in their neighborhood, citing concern about rising crime and falling property values.
Politicians from both camps lauded the idea of tackling the nation’s housing problems ahead of last month’s special municipality elections in order to win votes, but now they face a reality test: How to deliver on their election promises.
Political, economic and social forces are always shaping public welfare-oriented policies like social housing, but at the end of the day, the government itself has the final say on these policies.
The efforts to erase the stigmas attached to people living in public housing complexes is certainly a time-consuming job that demands both wisdom and patience on the part of the government. People only have a vague idea about the government’s plans to build the complexes, but they have no idea whether companion legislation could ensure the projects serve the public good without compromising their quality of life.
The government could call it quits on plans to build affordable housing because of stigmatization issues and shift its focus to building more transportation infrastructure in the suburbs, thus curbing the movement of new residents into the city. However, this would only show the government’s weakness and inability to tackle critical tasks and the nation’s failure to provide safe, decent and affordable housing for the poor, the elderly and minorities.
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