A Tale of Two Cities: Taiwan’s Social Housing Policy Practice in Taipei and Taoyuan City, 2014-2018

Written by Chris Chih-Hua Tseng.

Image Credit: 中路重劃區 向陽公園 by Foxy Who/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

One night in September 2017, when I walked into the public hearing for the sanzhangli social housing in Taipei, the scrambling noise implied something had happened. There were over 100 people inside the conference hall, several with open umbrellas displaying words like “tyrannical government” placed in front of government officials and scholars in opposition to social housing. The protest was led by the lizhang, the elected local village chief, who had occupied the podium earlier and kept interfering with the government official. Later that night, a Social Housing Advocating Consortium member, an alliance of NGOs promoting social housing, declared the same lizhang assaulted her.

Many critics quickly blamed opponents for defending their interests in maintaining high housing prices. However, even in neighbourhoods with relatively low housing prices, social housing has met with opposition. Taipei has spawned some policy innovations, but social housing is still rare. Meanwhile, in Taoyuan, an adjacent developing city that has built massive amounts of social housing, none of the above happened. Instead, the city government proudly announced it had built social housing the fastest. Why has social housing developed much more sluggishly in the capital than it has in Taoyuan?

To answer the differences between these two cities, we need to expand our scope to broader urban politics and urban developmental processes. For example, one common explanation is “NIMBY”ism (or “Not In My Back Yard”), and thus that building social trust and solidarity will alleviate such tensions. However, in Taiwan, the issue is less so NIMBYism, than a question of political dynamics. The difference in political dynamics between Taipei and Taoyuan has led to different countering measures. Interestingly, these political dynamics are different than what existing research suggests. Rather than successfully allying together and promoting a dominant ideology, urban elites have been much more divided and critical in their stance.

Transformational versus Developmental Logics in Taipei and Taoyuan

Taiwan is known for its paradox of high housing prices, high homeownership, and high vacancy rates. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior [MOI], at the end of 2019, the average price-to-income ratio in Taiwan was 8.58 (13.95 in Taipei).  Moreover, the average mortgage burden at the time was 35.15% (57.11% in Taipei). On the other hand, Taiwan’s homeownership has been constantly high, and in 2019 it reached 84.19%, according to the Report on the Survey of Family Income & Expenditure. Lastly, although the Taiwanese government conducts a housing census only once every ten years, in 2010, the vacancy rate was at 19.3%, which is relatively high compared to data from OECD. These suggest that Taiwan’s housing crisis is rooted not only in economic forces but also in political and social factors.

The standard explanation for this anomaly is the role of the government, which scholars often criticise for underregulating the market and propelling speculation. However, because of the enlarging housing inequality, NGOs in Taiwan have initiated housing reform campaigns since 1989, especially the call for social housing since 2010, and gaining significant political commitment to build 200,000 units in eight years after party alternation in 2016. As a result, Taipei City and Taoyuan City committed to building the most units, 50,000 (in eight years) and 20,000 (in four years) units, respectively. 

It was thus perhaps inevitable for the Taipei City government to resolve pressure for planning social housing in an already congested metropolitan area with limited available public land. As a result, the city government was required by the city council to hold at least two public hearings at each site. In addition, the city government (both the Urban Development Department [UDD] and the Department of Social Welfare [DoSW]) allied with scholars, experts, and NGOs, forming a stronger alliance to implement the logic of transformation. Thus, public-private governance displayed a spirit of cooperation as it recognised its importance in the transformation process: for the city government, it knew that it needed as many alliances as possible to provide legitimacy and fulfill political goals; for scholars, experts, and NGOs, cooperation was an opportunity to transform the homeowner society, and even redirect the housing agenda to further urban transformations.

Let us consider another side of the coin. I conducted a textual analysis of public hearing minutes and government responses to examine how the neighbourhood interpreted and negotiated with the city government. From this data, I found that residents demanded goods in return for neighbourhood acceptance of social housing in most of the meetings. Moreover, most lizhang and neighbourhood dwellers recognised the public hearings as an occasion to express their concerns over possible negative influences and as an opportunity to strengthen their bargaining power and procure goods in exchange for a deal within the transformation process.

Meanwhile, in Taoyuan, there was less pressure for the city government to garner public land, and they put more emphasis on utilising social housing as a tool for urban development. To facilitate urban sprawl and to reach political goals more efficiently, most of the sites were on the rezoned land that was relatively sparsely populated, which would also result in fewer oppositions. Most of the government’s negotiation processes, especially by the UDD and the Office of Housing Development [OHD], as other Departments like the DoSW in Taoyuan, played merely a passive role. OHD organised non-public seminars between them and invited scholars, experts, or NGOs. It held private discussions separately with each lizhang, as they are the prominent figures who will decide which resident’s demand comports with the public interest and development of the neighbourhood.

Strategic Action in Multilateral Versus Unilateral Field

The complexity of urban governance in Taipei blurs the difference between those with and without power, creating multilateral relationships, and has granted non-governmental actors the ability to be more flexible. While the city government, which oversaw all resources in the social housing generally had more sway and influence, and scholars, experts, NGOs, and other actors had been challenging the rules and in alliance with the city government. NGOs and lizhang shared a similar role in the field: they partially set the rules for social housing, and they were actors with whom the city government sought to cooperate and extract legitimacy. The difference between them is that NGOs facilitated a collaborative network with the city government and other experts. Unlike their counterparts, they are not bound by localism, as they function as both the elected representative and the local administrator.

Conversely, in Taoyuan, the field reveals unilateral relationships. The city government’s exclusive process mainly contained results in a more unequivocal relation between different groups. The city government, especially OHD, had significantly more sway in comparison to other groups, and there were barely any connections between policy domains or between advocates and experts. For actors like NGOs or lizhang, their decisions became less flexible, as oppositions are pre-emptively avoided. They were more restricted in a one-sided power relation dominated by the city government. As a result, OHD can be more efficient in achieving their goal and lowering confrontation risk.

Conclusion and The Outcome of Different Governance Practices

The multilateral and unilateral fields resulted from diverged logics of the two cities, which has initiated further policy innovations. While Taoyuan is praised for its efficiency, Taipei has initiated experimental programs to fix the social housing policy partially. First, the cooperation allowed several social housing projects to be designed with more public space for residents. Many city governments do not favour this since it will lower the number of housing units and their promised political goal. Second, while the central government lacks the tools to establish an affordable rent standard, Taipei was the first city that innovated an advanced rent standard that considered various factors, including incomes and households. Lastly, to improve community building in social housing and avoid possible adverse outcomes of ghettoisation, scholars, experts and NGOs successfully persuaded the city government to initiate the “Public Contribution Program,” any prospective resident can propose a community-building initiative. In the case of these two cities, housing has been a site where conflicting power networks have come into play. Building social housing is not just a question of tackling nimbyism or producingpolitical willl. Rather, it is a question of how power is shared amongst the dense set of actors involved in the policy process.

Chris Chih-Hua Tseng holds an M.A. in sociology from the National Taiwan University. He was previously involved in policy, and is currently working as a research assistant in the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He will be starting a PhD in the Department of Sociology at UC Irvine in fall 2021. His research focuses on politics, development, and housing inequality.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Housing in Taiwan. You can find all articles in the special issue here.

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