The Housing Movement and Tsuei Ma Ma Foundation for Housing and Community Services non-governmental organizations recently invited legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party and opposition parties to a news conference where they called on the government to offer “rent assistance.” The groups called for inclusion of rent reductions, assistance or subsidies for social housing, in the “Stimulus 4.0” relief package.
It is worth exploring how to take advantage of emergency rental assistance to take stock and identify the plight of disadvantaged households, so that this short-term emergency assistance can be used to make more effective long-term improvements in the living environments of disadvantaged families, and to give full play to the overall effectiveness of epidemic prevention in households.
Above all, it is important to recognize the plight of disadvantaged households, not only in terms of financial ability: Other issues include small living spaces, and poor-quality, unsafe and sometimes even illegal construction.
Faced with the seriousness of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, the government is asking people to stay home as much as possible, but many disadvantaged families, single people and students are sharing kitchen, bath and living spaces by renting rooms and suites, so it is questionable whether they would be contributing to the nation’s disease prevention effort by staying home.
Before the outbreak, these people, living in small, poorly ventilated and poorly lit homes, did not usually spend a lot of time there during the day, but now they have to, as part of the disease prevention effort. This could have a serious effect on their physical and mental health, especially on children and young people. The question is: What can be done to improve their situation?
At present, government assistance to disadvantaged households is mainly focused on providing rent or tax relief for three categories of social housing in the broad sense: a small number of government-run social housing units, rent escrow and rent subsidies.
However, most disadvantaged households do not fall under the three categories, and receive no rental assistance. Disadvantaged people who live in illegal structures need more care and assistance from social welfare units, but because of the rental housing black market, many have no recourse.
In other words, in terms of fairness of rental assistance, the three household categories receive government subsidies, and their quality of living is relatively better, so their need for resources and rental assistance should be prioritized less than those disadvantaged people who do not live in social housing in the broad sense.
Taiwan has long ignored the existence of the rental housing black market. As a result, the government has been unable to grasp the plight of disadvantaged households and related information.
During the outbreak, calls to provide rental subsidies to disadvantaged households under the Stimulus 4.0 program should focus on disadvantaged households that are not receiving subsidies. Not only is prioritizing disadvantaged households that have not received government assistance in the past a matter of fairness, it also provides information about the living conditions of these households, such as rent, area and number of people, and that would help reveal the truth about the rental housing black market.
Of course, a rent subsidy for disadvantaged households would be a short-term measure in response to the outbreak, and it should not involve questions of whether a dwelling is legal or illegal, nor is it related to rental taxes. To eliminate concerns among subsidized households, and to encourage and assist disadvantaged rental households to apply for the subsidy, the legality or illegality of the dwelling should not be taken into consideration, nor should it be related to the rental tax.
Through such a rent subsidy application, the government would not only be able to provide timely assistance to the disadvantaged, it could gain a better understanding of the current situation and problems related to rental housing for disadvantaged households, establish a database on the issue and work together with local social welfare departments and non-governmental organizations to develop a long-term assistance plan to improve the rental housing environment.
In several pandemics throughout history, the outbreak and spread of a disease were associated with poor living conditions, and a lack of finance and education among disadvantaged groups.
Large amounts of data regarding the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to be compiled and rigorous empirical studies carried out, including analysis of whether the spread of the disease, and infection and death rates, are related to the poor living environment, and the economic and educational level of disadvantaged households.
However, from a housing justice perspective, the government should prioritize helping disadvantaged households with their housing situation and disease prevention in the home.
Chang Chin-oh is an honorary chair professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Technology Management.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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