Public Housing Condition in Singapore

This paper examines the existing issues and new challenges in Singapore’s public housing and how housing policies have been implemented and endeavors to establish whether this scheme is sustainable and capable of housing a projected population of 5.5 million by the year 2050. Specific issues discussed are policies on decentralization of housing management, housing the elderly who are projected to double by 2050, introduction of super high-rise flats for the near future,1 and community building in public housing estates. The pace of urbanization in relation to economic growth and the availability of land for housing coupled with high land prices have been predominant problems weighing down the public housing sector. Efforts to improve the standards of living have been negated by poor housing conditions in the slums and squatter areas. However, Singapore has been able to implement city-planning and urban-management policies that actually benefit the poor, and its housing programs have been highly successful and admired for producing low-cost, affordable housing on a mass scale.2
In Singapore, public housing is managed and regulated by the Housing and Development Board. This board was established in 1960 to solve the critical issue of insufficient housing by the People’s Action Party (PAP) and it is charged with construction and maintenance of flats at the fastest speed possible and at the lowest costs. This board was established after a study showed that 72% of the population or 680,000 people lived within the central city area.3 About a third of the population was living within an area of 4 square kilometers. Urban slums burgeoned, breeding disease, encouraging crime and posing fire hazards. Since 1960, 85% of Singapore’s population has gained access to over 800,000 flats which are issued under a 99-year lease.4 HDB new towns are well-planned and have commercial, institutional, recreational and sanitary facilities which cater for this large town population such as supermarkets, health centers, hawker centers, as well as sports and recreational facilities. There is a multiple variety of flat types and house layouts available from three to five-room and also executive flats. Three-room flats contain three bedrooms in an area of about 750 sq ft. Four-room flats contain three bedrooms in an area of about 1,200 sq ft. The sitting room counts as a single room Executive apartment contain and separate dining and living rooms and three bedrooms. These are the largest apartments with a floor space of 1,600 sq ft. 5
The rapid growth of Singapore at the turn of the century produced slums in the central city area. In 1918, a Housing Commission to carry out a study of the housing problems was established. This commission proposed setting up of Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1927as a solution to hosing the homeless.6 Its objectives were to plan roads, regulate sanitation and acquire land for housing. Large scale housing was however not carried out. As a result, only 23,000 units of flats were constructed in 32 years of its existence.7These illustrated the need for a body that would accelerate growth in the public housing sector. Under its incorporation act, the HDB is charged with construction of homes for the people, allocating land for development, providing loans for purchase of flats, and managing rented and leased properties which is enabled by financial support and proper legislation. Financial support is mainly conducted through grants and house construction and maintenance loans. Legislation through the passing of the Land Acquisition Act in 1967 allowed the boards to acquire private land compulsorily for public housing and development programs. The charter, coupled with proper resettlement policies, has facilitated clearance of slums and squatter zones and resettlement in modernized public housing estates. The Land Acquisition Ordinance which was passed in 1920 was amended in 1946 and 1955 to give the government powers to acquire more private land for comprehensive new-town development and to seek price stabilization. However, the powers granted were limited and the process was cumbersome and slow. Its construction rate by then was one new flat per year per 150 families which only housed 8.8% of Singapore’s 1.6 million people.8Many people were living in overcrowded slums and squatter areas. Around 250,000 people lived in poor pre-war housing in the central Singapore area and around 300,000 lived in shanty huts in other congested squatter areas.
The government had inherited the problems of insufficient professional manpower and building industry together with limited financial resources from their colonial masters. Among its pledges was construction of 10,000 units of low-cost housing annually in the first five years. 9
After 1945, housing conditions were poor, overcrowded, dilapidated with poor sanitary services and insufficient infrastructure. The rapid population growth rate led to establishment of slums and a high number of homeless populations with 680000 out of 938000 persons living in the central zone which was more than two thirds of the population then.10This was a pressing political and social issue. After a time span of over 40 years as Singapore’s prime housing provider, 862, 918 flats have been built to house 2,854,000 constituting 85% of the population.11

In 1964, the Home Ownership Scheme was introduced to help the citizens acquire flats. 12The scheme not only grants ownership to citizens, but also financial security and insulates against inflation and rising rents. Social security through Central Provident Fund (CPF) accelerated popularity of this scheme. Applicants were allowed to use their CPF to pay for their deposits and installments for their flats which highly boosted home ownership.13
In the 1980’s, a quality living environment was highly emphasized. The ‘precinct concept’ was introduced to enable residents identify with their locality and enhance social interaction. The precincts contained 400 to 600 dwelling unit which had a landscaped open field for conducting communal affairs.14They were interlinked by landscaped walk paths to form neighborhoods. This created a ‘Total Living Environment’ which completely satisfied resident needs.
The 1990’s insisted on creating a picturesque environment in the precinct, neighborhood and town which entailed a physical visual identity. Landmark buildings, landscaping, open communal spaces and special finishes and architectural features brought about a sense of identity and territorial exclusivity. Special attention was also given to the preservation of natural landscape features such as hills and rivers. The HDB Annual Report 2001/2002 shows that from a mere 9% level of housing, this has grown to 85% in 2002.15
Since 1960, HDB was responsible for managing all public housing in towns and estates. However, managing 85% of the population in 2002 has posed a challenge since the project was very large such that individual needs and preferences could not be met.16 This challenge was adequately solved by introduction of town councils in order to encourage self-reliance within a locality. These councils can carry out decision-making, employ their own staff and allocate a managing agent to a particular property. Residents have a choice on the kind of environment that would best suit them. At first, it was controversial on their extent of their powers on decision making and policy implementation but over time they have proven to be reliable on service delivery and maintenance strategies.

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