Published on December 14, 2007
The promise of more low-income housing has always been a mainstay on the menu of policies that populist candidates serve up during election time - because opportunist politicians know that shelter is one of the most basic human necessities. And they know that a decent standard of shelter is still beyond the reach of many poor people. Successive governments of every ideological hue and stripe have, at one time or other, implemented such programmes with varying degrees of success. But none has gone as far as the previous Thaksin administration, which at the height of its populist excesses, promised to build up to one million low-cost housing units countrywide. Fortunately for Thailand, that government, toppled in a military coup last September, was prevented from making good on its unreasonable and undeliverable promise. A nightmare scenario of poorly designed, sloppily built suburban sprawl, mushrooming all over the country, was avoided.
Thaksin's idea was based on the assumption that the millions of urban poor who live in squalid conditions in some 5,000 slum communities in Bangkok and other cities around the country need to be relocated so they can enjoy more decent housing and a better quality of life. Depending on whom one talks to, Thaksin is described as manipulative by his critics, or, sincere by his millions of supporters. But Thaksin's plan to build low-cost housing was ill-conceived and fraught with the potential for corruption.
Low-cost housing units, which typically are sold for Bt600,000 or less, can make for comfortable living for a small household of limited means - but only if they are well designed and if the state subsidies that go into the cost of land acquisition and construction do not get pilfered by politicians and their cronies.
Building low-cost homes is easy, but making them liveable requires more than just putting the physical structures in place. Any planned public housing project must be designed and managed in a way that will effectively solve the economic, social and environmental problems that plagued the slums. Examples abound of recently built, ill-planned, cheap public housing projects that have deteriorated to become the same squalid slums they were intended to replace.
Creating effective low-cost public housing should involve a lot more than merely providing prefab concrete boxes with corrugated-tin roofs on top. The idea is to give people a new start in life by allowing them to build up their communities, by empowering the community members to participate in sound development and the maintenance of decent living conditions.
The most repeated mistake is to build low-income homes in the suburbs, where land is cheap. But there are few jobs in these locations and they are too far from the city centres where most low-wage earners make their living. Government planners tend to overlook the most important factor: proximity to employment - which is why poor people chose to live in slums in the first place.
Although Thailand has achieved a high rate of overall home ownership - at about 80 per cent of total households - home ownership in urban areas remains relatively low at 55 per cent. Rapid economic and social development, urbanisation and land speculation has pushed up the price of land and properties beyond the reach of people of moderate means, let alone those on low incomes.
In the run-up to the December 23 election, voters are still hearing the same old promises from populist politicians about low-cost housing projects. The low-income electorate should be sceptical.
The problem for members of the urban poor is that they cannot afford a decent place to live in the first place. They do not have access to mortgages because they tend to live precariously, from day to day, working in the informal sector, where employers do not care for their welfare or provide access to social security. It is not enough for the government to just build more low-cost housing units; poor people must be given a hand to lift themselves up from the poverty trap. They must be provided with protection against unscrupulous employers and given access to welfare benefits.
The future government must learn from the mistakes of the past and make sure that affordable housing for the poor serves its intended purpose, and is not just used as a vote-getting gimmick by irresponsible populist politicians.