When you think of Singapore, what do you think? My guess is that gleaming infrastructure, immaculate public spaces, and amazing food culture come to mind. But did you know that more than 80% of Singaporeans live in subsidized housing? Crazy to imagine, right?
The US public housing system carries a stigma associated with poverty, crime, and poorly maintained buildings. Somehow, Singapore has managed to avoid this by building efficient, modern, convenient housing.
In the 1960s, many people lived in kampong settlements with wood houses or traditional thatched huts made of attap palms. These villages were susceptible to fires as well as a fair amount of gang-related activity. As Singapore moved into nationhood, safety, modernity, and racial harmony became top priorities.
The Housing Development Board (HDB) was established in early 1960 to provide safer, more modern housing to the population. Most people could not afford this new type of housing so the Singapore government set up a system of grants and subsidies to make units affordable to the majority of citizens.
There is a striking difference between Singapore and the US regarding the approach to public housing. In Singapore, every flat belongs to the owner for a period of 99 years. After 99 years, the government may come back in and redevelop the land according to its purposes. During these 99 years though, owners may renovate, sell or pass down their units. In effect, flats act much like condo buildings but with a system of grants and subsidies that potential owners can apply for.
What are HDB flats like?
A typical flat will consist of one, two, or three-bedroom configurations with the newest housing being the most space efficient and modern. Like a new condo building in the US, flats can be custom-built with fixtures, flooring, and countertops picked out by the owners. While the layouts will remain largely the same across units, you can customize them to your taste.
The HDB website has some great examples of how owners can design their units. Several of our family members own HDB flats and they are all very livable. Each house uniquely reflects the family living there.
Unlike US public housing, HDB complexes are near supermarkets, public transit, schools, and community centers (these are similar to the YMCAs in the US.) In most cases, you’ll have a supermarket and preschool facilities right downstairs. You’ll most likely have a hawker center in your complex or next door and there will be easy access to Singapore’s immaculate public transit system. In addition, Singapore seems to be building additional healthcare centers close to HDB communities to ensure easy access to healthcare. It’s really convenient!
Singapore relies on a system of subsidies and grants to make housing affordable. Potential buyers must fall below certain income requirements, with families and seniors given priority. Singles do not qualify to purchase an HDB flat until after the age of 35. Units will cost more or less depending on their location and size. A typical 2-bedroom/4-room flat seems to be around $500,000 (SGD). These prices are market-driven but the government keeps a close eye on this and seems to either build more flats if it senses a long term shortage or will offer additional grants for the short time.
There are monthly fees ranging from $20-101 (SGD) for maintenance of common areas, much like condo association fees.
Singapore’s handling of public housing is revolutionary. Allowing people to have ownership over their units creates a very different mindset than the way the system works in the US. People automatically care a bit more if they feel the unit is their own. They can build some equity and pass something on to their children.
It’s not a perfect system and it will be interesting to see how Singapore navigates things as the 99 year lease looms closer for many of the early HDB communities. However, giving so many people the ability to have convenient, affordable housing in one of the world’s most expensive cities is something to be applauded.