Housing is a basic human right, a necessity, and a major concern in the process of social development. Left-leaning urban sociologists define housing, education, medical care and transportation as the four urban-oriented collective consumption behaviors that should be protected by the government. Housing policy also lies at the center of social welfare schemes in relatively developed regions.
Skyrocketing residential property prices in August 1989 triggered the Shell-less Snail Movement, a milestone in the history of Taiwan social movements. The Shell-less Snails made their name as nearly 50,000 people offended by rising housing prices were mobilized by the Houseless Persons’ Union (HPU) to spend a night sleeping on section 4 of Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei City, the country’s most expensive stretch of land. By devoting themselves to the Shell-less Snails, the faculty and students of the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, National Taiwan University (NTU-GIBP) became the core members of HPU. In an attempt to bolster the campaign’s momentum, the Organization of Urban Reforms (OURs) and Tsuei Ma Ma Property Rental Services, the predecessor of the Tsuei Ma Ma Foundation for Housing and Community Services, emerged in 1989 as HPU spin-offs and then continued to fight for social injustice at home even after their parent organization had accomplished some short-term goals and became inactive. They managed to keep the HPU cause alive thanks to NTU-GIBP’s all-out efforts.
The construction and urban planning professionals at OURs share four organizational goals: introducing urban policies and monitoring implementation progress; keeping track of urban and neighborhood development issues; offering help to underprivileged environmental activists; and promotion of education and awareness. The Tsuei Ma Ma Foundation for Housing and Community Services, on the other hand, is a long-time provider of housing-related services such as rental brokerage, housing assistance for troubled families, recommending reliable household removal services, and community empowerment. OURs and Tsuei Ma Ma tried to address the two core housing justice issues, residential property prices and housing policy reforms, but things hardly changed in the two decades between 1989 and 2009.
Housing issues for young city-dwellers and the disadvantaged are exacerbated by the fact that Taiwan residential property costs in 2009 far exceeded the 1989 level, complicated by declining wages and an ever-widening wealth gap. To ameliorate the housing issue that has long stayed atop the list of northern Taiwan residents’ top 10 grievances, OURs and Tsuei Ma Ma jointly formed the Social Housing Advocacy Consortium with 12 NGOs — the Eden Social Welfare Foundation, Garden of Hope Foundation, League of Welfare Organizations for the Disabled, Taiwan Labor Front, etc. — in the run-up to the 2010 mayoral/magistrate elections, calling on the government to provide not-for-sale rental housing. Not only was the consortium’s cause supported by the central government and all four sets of mayoral candidates (KMT and DPP) in Greater Taipei, the region hit the hardest by housing prices, it also kick-started an ongoing effort to provide social housing. In 2011, KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou was mired in a surprisingly close race with his DPP counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen, and sought to sway middle-of-the-road voters. As the incumbent, he bowed to pressure from the Social Housing Advocacy Consortium in April 2011 and, with election day just months away, signed into law the Luxury Tax Act to discourage real estate swing trading. The Housing Act was also rushed through the legislature before its December 2011 recess, along with amendments to the Real Estate Broking Management Act, Land Administration Agent Act, and Equalization of Land Rights Act, commonly referred to as the “three acts of Actual Price Registration ” and playing a crucial role in property information disclosure. The consortium’s efforts over the last four years are starting to bear fruit as political heavyweights nationwide have become increasingly concerned with social housing policies. For instance, 28 mayoral/county magistrate candidates from 16 administrative districts mentioned social housing in their 2014 campaign platforms, with the six largest cities’ 12 sets of candidates all responding positively to the consortium’s demands, while only Greater Taipei candidates responded in 2010.
When people’s sense of grievance intensified in 2014 as housing prices, their top concern, continued to trend upwards, OURs launched a next-generation housing justice campaign called “Nest Movement” in association with Tsuei Ma Ma, the Social Housing Advocacy Consortium, 101 NGOs and student activists. As part of the “Occupy the Palace on Oct. 4” initiative, Nest Movement participants slept on Ren-ai Road the day before World Habitat Day 2014 and voiced five demands: constitutionalization of the right to housing and banning of forced demolition and relocation, increased social housing projects, implemention of property tax reforms, expansion of the rental housing market while introducing rental regulations, and re-examining public land-related regulations and suspending Affordable Housing projects. Having successfully raised the awareness of the public and politicians of the right to housing, the “Nest Movement” plans to address property tax reforms, Housing Act amendments, and rental housing policies or regulations in a renewed 2015 campaign, capitalizing on the political opportunity presented by the presidential election.
Generally speaking, efforts in the first two decades of Taiwan’s 25-year pursuit of housing justice bore little fruit until 2010, when policy changes proved noticeably effective. However, property tax reforms combined with financial and credit controls are required to solve the critical issue: housing affordability. Although both the Kuomintang and the DPP avoid taking serious housing price control action that would deal a blow to entrenched interests as well as voters’ sources of income, the good news is that fierce partisan conflict and rotation of the ruling parties has forced Taiwanese politicians to listen more closely to demands of constituents. This explains why elections for local government heads and for the president, taking place once every four years, are the only political opportunities for right-to-housing activists to push for policy reform, of which property tax reform is a long and winding road because it strikes at the heart of capitalism by ensuring affordable housing. Only through keeping track of societal changes over the long run can resource-strapped NGOs bring about change and improvement.
It is exactly because facilitating reasonable housing is a daunting, time-consuming task that everyone at NTU-GIBP needs to pass on the baton to generations to come.
“Public housing reform isn’t over, so keep on trying, my friends at NTU-GIBP!”(By Lu Bing-yi ,Tsuei Ma Ma Property Rental Services )