Homes for All #6: Singapore with Tan Beng Kiang

Homes for All is a video series commissioned by Stadsleven in which correspondents from all over the world report on the state of the housing market in their city. In episode 6 Tan Beng Kiang, architect and lecturer at the National University of Singapore, shows how Singapore’s strong vision of public housing can create more community in society.

Blog written by: Sanne van der Beek

Why 80% of Singapore’s inhabitants live in public housing

80%. That’s the staggering percentage of Singapore’s inhabitants who live in public housing, built by the government. This is a unique situation in the world. How did this come about, and why does it work for the city?

Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) was formed in 1960, replacing a city-planning agency created by the British colonial regime. In 1960, there was a housing crisis in Singapore. Many people were living in filthy slums and crowded squatter settlements. Only 9% of Singaporeans lived in government flats. Within 10 years, the HDB built enough houses to solve this entire housing crisis. Now, 80% of Singapore inhabitants live in more than one million HDB apartments. 

The HDB apartments all come with 99-year leases and are sold at lower-than-market prices. So 90% of the residents who live in apartments built by the government own them. The cash Singaporeans use to buy their HDB property comes in part from the Central Provident Fund (CPF) – a mandatory saving scheme into which each citizen must deposit 20% of their monthly salary. People can use a portion of their savings as a deposit on an HDB apartment. Also, a lot of people are entitled to cheap mortgages provided by HDB, and to use their CPF contributions to meet some or all of the monthly payments.

In Singapore, home ownership is considered to be an important part of people’s pension, according to this article in The Economist:

“The theory is that almost all Singaporeans will own apartments outright by the time they finish working, in addition to having savings of their own. Those willing to downsize upon retirement – or ‘right-size’, as the government likes to say – do best. Singaporeans are granted an extra discount if they choose to buy property located in the same neighborhood as their parents, nudging them to help with care that could otherwise fall to the state.”

A new generation of public housing

Many will be amazed by the example of public housing Tan Beng Kiang gives in her ‘Homes for All’ video. The 47-storey building of SkyVille, designed by the famous architect Richard Hassell of the studio WOHA, does not conform to the bleak and grim image of public housing people tend to have. The apartment towers look slick and luxurious. CNN reported on the project with the telling title ‘Luxury hotel? No, Singapore’s new-generation public housing’.

Skyville is basically a cluster of 12 ‘villages’, each made up of 80 apartments, which share communal landscaped areas – or ‘sky gardens’ – with an innovative climate regulation system. This project demonstrates the role the HDB wants to play in Singaporean society. It wants to be more than an urban planning organization: it also wants deliver housing that is sustainable and community-centric so that it will strengthen the social foundation of Singapore’s society.

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The newest project of WOHA for the HDB – Kampung Admiralty – pushes this further with a deliberate mixed-used project, combining aged-care housing with other facilities, including a medical center and hawker center. It’s Singapore’s first retirement community, which is designed to encourage the elderly to leave their houses to socialize in the community garden, or pick up their grandchildren from the on-site kindergarten so their parents don’t need to rush from work. The available 100 apartments were specifically aimed for existing local residents who would like to age in place. This is the first time such a project has involved the collective effort of eight government agencies, such as the Ministry of Health, National Environment Agency and Early Childhood Development Agency, and put so many different facilities under one roof.

Singapore’s public housing projects do not only attempt to create strong communities, but explore also the future of urban living in dense cities with innovative experiments. SkyVille for examples offers residents 3 plan variations for each size of unit. These flexible layouts are based on column-free, beam-free apartment spaces, thereby eliminating waste and making allowance for diverse family sizes, various lifestyles (e.g. home office/loft-living) and future flexibility. And Northshore Plaza, which is expected to be completed by 2020, serves as a testcase for new technology including Smart Fans, which will be activated by wind speed, temperature and human traffic patterns.


But next to a lot of praise, Singapore’s public housing system also gets criticism about how the government has now a strict control over the way of living of its inhabitants. There are for example rules that dictate who can buy HDB flats. Priority is granted to married couples. Loners can apply for flats of their own, but only if they are still unwed by the age of 35. This means that young adults tend to live at home until they get hitched, and gay couples have a hard time to find affordable housing.

Also, the theory that HDB-ownership provides for a comfortable retirement turns out somewhat different in practice, as older residents rather stay in their apartments, instead of moving to ‘right-size’ smaller flats or moving in with their children.  

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