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Public Housing and Urban Development in Singapore

By Jonathan Denis-Jacob
December 17, 2012

Over the past 50 years, Singapore has become an international leader in urban planning and sustainability. One of the four Asian Tigers, this small city-state of 5.3 million people has implemented innovative urban policies and programs such as the Certificate of Entitlements (COE) which limits car ownership,  the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) and, in particular, the unique public housing model. Singapore's public housing model is known worldwide as a success story. Singapore's homeownership rate is now among the highest in the world and homelessness is almost unheard of in the City-state. Furthermore, the features of the built environment in public housing neighborhoods have made Singapore one of the most transit-oriented cities in the world, with over 60% of daily trips made using public transportation.

The notion of public housing in Singapore differs from the one found in most countries in the Western World. First, the public housing stock is not limited to low-income households. About 82% of Singapore`s population of all income levels lives in the public housing stock. Secondly, public housing is at the forefront of the city-making process in Singapore.

The government agency responsible for the production and the management of the public housing stock in Singapore is the Housing Development Board (HDB). The mission of HDB is to provide affordable housing based on the current and future needs of Singapore's population, to create vibrant and sustainable towns and to ensure vibrant, active and cohesive communities. Much more than a homebuilder, HDB plays a significant role in the urban development process in by creating livable communities.  HDB flats are located in master-planned towns which contain a wide array of amenities and services (schools, polyclinics, sport facilities, public market, shops, etc.).  HDB towns are planned on the principle of self-sufficiency, ensuring that all essential proximity services are available locally. Each town is planned for between 4,000 and 6,000 flats and is composed of smaller neighborhoods (600 to 800 units) distributed around a town center where major facilities and shops are located.

Most HDB flats are located in high-density buildings. With the second highest population density in the world and increasing land scarcity, Singapore has no other choice but to grow upwards, and even to reclaim land over the sea. In fact, Singapore's land base has grown by about 130 km² (18%) since 1960 following several land reclamation projects, a large share of which were public housing projects. Land scarcity also drives innovation in the design of public housing projects.  The Pinnacle@Duxton is perhaps the most illustrative example of creative design driven by limited land. The project won several international awards for the two “Sky gardens” built on the 25th and 50th floors. The Pinnacle is now known as the biggest public housing complex in the world.

The public housing system in Singapore operates based on a complex set of rules and regulations. The main principle that makes it so unique is the emphasis on ownership as opposed to rental. Though HDB flats are sold using a 99-year leasehold, flat resale is allowed at the market price, which provides households with the option of using their unit equity for long-term savings. Affordability is ensured through a set of modalities, including the provision of different unit sizes, progressive mortgage payments (based on income levels), low interest rates and government subsidies. Examples of subsidies include additional financial aid to low-income families, first-time buyers who locate near their parents' home and families with children.

Public housing in Singapore has traditionally been of medium quality. But with the recent introduction of Executive Condominiums, buyers can now purchase apartments that are similar in nature and in quality as those offered in the private market, which is out of reach for a majority of Singaporeans.

In conclusion, public housing is one of the features that make Singapore a nation at the cutting-edge of urban development and sustainability. Though the model is facing growing criticism, including rising property prices and lack of rental housing options, Singapore's public housing has proven successful in housing most of the country's population as well as in creating livable and sustainable communities in only half a century.  

Photo 1 :  Pinnacle@Duxton