Housing is a basic necessity but creating enough housing stocks is a big problem in a country like ours where population is increasing and urbanisation is picking up pace. Several models have been tried out in last seven decades since India became independent but with little success and problem persists and is burgeoning. Meanwhile, there are some other nations which have framed policies to solve their housing problems that have proved to be successful. For example, Singapore’s housing scheme finds mention at various forums and has been applauded by experts for its efficiency in solving the problem.
Singapore model of public housing
Singapore model of public housing is unique among countries with public housing systems in terms of both the proportion of residents living in public housing; and its focus on home ownership of public housing flats. Today, more than 80% of Singapore’s residents live in housing provided by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The volume highlights tangible, evidence-based measures implemented by the HDB in addressing housing unaffordability since the 1960s, as well as its shift from understanding public housing as shelter for resettled families and the poor to universal provision. Since 1961, in fact, the HDB completed more than 1 million housing units. Furthermore, its building programme was complemented by comprehensive and integrated planning to create a self-sufficient environment conducive for residents to live, work, play and learn – making housing the centre of a social welfare infrastructure.
It is not just about building houses
But Singapore’s public housing policy is not just about constructing houses and giving it to the people who need them but there were several other ancillary policies that supported the main policy. It has been found that a key reason for the success of Singapore’s urban renewal and slum clearance programme is the policy of providing alternative accommodation for the families and businesses affected. It was essential that the building programme kept pace with the redevelopment programme so that resettled families and businesses found homes and new premises. Just as important was a fully functional new town which had essential amenities like schools and markets and serviced by an efficient transport system.
They provide employment opportunities too
It should also be noted that public housing estates in Singapore are not only constructed with commercial, social and recreational facilities, but also it provides employment opportunities. Within each housing estate, some 10 to 15% of the land, usually at the periphery, is reserved for industrial use in order to tap the pool of labour from the housing estates. As a result, nearly 60% of the workers in HDB industrial estates actually lived within the public housing estate where the industrial estate was located.
Outbreak of Corona and subsequent lockdown have taught us the importance of self-contained residential areas and townships. But in Singapore, HDB towns are comprehensively planned to create a self-sufficient environment that is conducive for residents to live, work, play and learn.
In Singapore most of the land is government owned
However, an important aspect that should be kept in mind is that in Singapore, 90% of the land is government-owned, and about 80% of citizens and legal residents live in owner-occupied public housing on leased land. At independence in 1965, about 50% of Singapore was government-owned, reaching its current level of holdings in 2002. Government land ownership has been accomplished through eminent domain along with land reclamation, which has increased the size of the island by a quarter.
Government ownership of most of the land and its leasing can be a double-edged weapon. On the one hand, it removes the problems and delays associated with land acquisition and reduces execution time of the projects and on the other, it may bring a sense of insecurity among the house owners. The prices of older flats inevitably fall as the end of their leasehold term approaches. At the end of a 99-year lease, land and its improvements revert to SLA ownership with no compensation for flat owners.
It’s difficult to say whether high house prices are due to expensive land prices or vice versa because rent theory says that house prices determine land prices, a view often challenged by some experts. The argument goes on to say that the reason for insufficient land supply and high house prices is not planning authorities zoning too little residential land, but that the monopoly of land makes land scarce and invites speculation. In case of Singapore, it might have worked both ways and deriving a theory out of its experience may be difficult.
Public housing in Singapore, for that matter any housing scheme anywhere in the world, should not be viewed as just about providing a roof over the head. Apart from providing decent, affordable homes with ample domestic and public or social space, sanitary living conditions, convenient access to sufficient amenities and transportation, easy connections to locations outside of town, among other things, the public housing scheme should also serve the national interest, that of strengthening national identity and social integration and bonding, which would engender a more stable and secure living environment and harmonious community and in turn a more resilient society.