Last week, as many people were paying attention to the government’s reaction to a controversial urban renewal project in Taipei City’s Shilin District (士林), few people noticed that another housing issue was in the making, albeit involving less confrontation, as the government was considering changes to its public housing policy, prompting many to ask whether it was capable of implementing an effective and feasible public housing policy.
On Thursday, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) told the legislature’s Internal Administration Committee that the nation’s overall demand for social housing — about 190,000 households — was more than the government could afford. Because the government lacks the funds and the land for public housing projects in urban areas, amid a high nationwide rate of unoccupied apartment units, Lee told lawmakers the government would have to adjust its housing policies.
Based on Lee’s remarks, a new policy was announced encouraging lower-income people to “rent” suitable housing rather than “buy” low-cost units subsidized by the government. The government would prioritize the use of empty houses instead of the construction of new ones, while it would stop building public housing, including projects under the categories of “social housing,” “quality housing” and “modern housing.”
In short, the government will no longer provide public housing to balance the market’s supply and demand, but will continue to give incentives to the private sector to build low-cost units. In the future, the government will simply play the role of “matchmaker” to help low-income households find suitable housing, Lee said.
Since 2010, the government has launched several public housing projects in urban areas and introduced a luxury tax, aiming to curb real-estate speculation and help low-income families deal with skyrocketing real-estate prices. However, no matter what the government’s housing programs are called and how they are built and sold, Lee’s remarks indicated that the government’s public housing initiative did not achieve its goals. It also raised suspicions that all policy initiatives regarding public housing over the past two years were nothing but government-led election campaign tools.
The public has many doubts and negative perceptions about public housing — which tend to focus on inferior construction and poor public safety. People living near public housing units or buildings also strenuously object to the policy. Therefore, if the government no longer plans to build public housing, its policy focus should be shifted to improving public infrastructure to provide faster and more convenient services to people living in suburban areas as well as expanding the scope of housing subsidies to low-income households.
Furthermore, the government should recognize that promoting balanced development between suburban and urban areas, as well as between southern and northern Taiwan, would be an effective way to discourage people from moving to urban areas, especially Taipei. The government needs to build a better public transportation network and promote local economic sectors to improve regional employment.
The government should use this opportunity to review the management mechanism for the nation’s public housing, because it currently lacks a centralized body to take overall responsibility for public housing.