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A Nation of Public Housing

Neal Peirce / Jun 30 2012

For Release Sunday, July 1, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceSINGAPORE — If you hate government, want it out of your hair and held at bay, Singapore should be pure hell.

One government agency manages 80 percent of the housing stock — all called public housing. It checks your age and whether you’re married to decide whether and when you’re eligible for an apartment. It decides what you’ll pay to occupy your flat, which local services will (or won’t) be provided. It even checks your ethnicity — every housing area has a set balance among the leading local ancestries — Chinese, Malay and Indian.

So unless you’re affluent enough to own a private home — and few Singaporeans are — the government’s Housing and Development Board is your all-powerful landlord. Ignore its rules and you’re out in the cold.

Sounds oppressive?

Well, consider the bargain that’s offered — a clear path to personal financial solvency if you’re a citizen of Singapore and play the game as the government wishes.

Given specific entry rules, you’re entitled to an apartment.

There are hurdles. First, you have to have been employed continuously for at least one year — call it public housing if you will, but no freeloaders welcome here!

Second, you have to be 21 or older and forming a “family nucleus” — already be married, or plan to marry. Wedlock and flat acquisition seem to go hand-in-hand. (Are gay couples eligible Unambiguously no, even though one hears Singapore does have its own gay community.)

Single men or women can apply for the housing, even in groups — but not until they’re 35 or older.

Plus, there’s a moderate income ceiling and a strict rule: you can’t own any private housing.

What’s notable is that once you agree to this social engineering, and you’re “in” — you’ve made a down payment, signed what amounts to a mortgage agreement — you have a choice of different apartment sizes. You’re actually an owner. The monthly payments are a modest 20 percent of your family income. And as you build value, you can actually sell your apartment and move to a higher-grade unit.

When Singapore won its independence in 1960, subsistence hut-like buildings housed most of the people. Today, across the crowded citistate, one sees arrays of high-rise public housing towers, symbols of nationhood and rootedness won by conscious, consistent effort. Singapore has every right to boast that it’s “the only country in the world to achieve almost full homeownership status” — no slums, no squatter communities. And “not just public housing, but homes people can be proud of.”

Plus there’s a constant pattern of demolishing older apartment complexes, replacing them with new. To undergird community solidarity, residents are invited to move en bloc with their neighbors to brand new apartments.

It’s easy for outsiders to say there’s government-enforced conformity in Singapore. And indeed, a nationwide set of government-underwritten social clubs provides constant recreation and educational activities, targeted at age groups ranging from little children to elders on canes. The conformity and government sponsorship might concern Americans. But the delivered, year-in, year-out services, clearly enriching Singaporeans’ peoples’ lives, far outshine those in all but the most affluent most U.S. communities.

Plus, Singapore is redefining public housing design in a dramatic fashion. Standing at ground level, one gasps with amazement at the height and drama of the new Pinnacle housing project, opened in 2009 on a prime center-city piece of land.

And why? Soaring upward from ground level are no less than seven 50-story apartment towers. And “not just towers” — the seven as actually linked, made a single community and project, because they’re connected by skybridges. One, on the 26th floor, offers residents a children’s playground, an outdoor gym, and a quite amazing 800-meter long jogging track. And on the 50th floor, there’s a sky garden and 360-degree viewing deck.

It’s in the nature of high-rises to be far more impersonal than communities of more human scale. But of one plans high-rises with care — social as well as physical — the results can be highly positive. And as the world — Asia a prime example — adds billions more people, attractive and livable high rises can make a dramatic difference.

Touring the Pinnacle, noting kids at play, joggers on the run, classrooms and varieties of stores, enjoying the spectacular views and sense of safety, I suddenly had a flashback. I recalled the ugly and forbidding, ultimately high crime zones of America’s post-World War II public housing. I remembered visiting the ghastly Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis before it was abandoned, blasts of dynamite reducing it to rubble.

So it’s obvious: government can make dire mistakes — as we Americans indeed proved with our callous placement of public housing in isolated neighborhoods, deprived of connections and services. But as Singapore illustrates, government can perform social and physical miracles too. Ultimately the issue’s not government — it is us.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

5 Comments

  1. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted July 1, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Singapore has a message for US and other western countries:rethink low rise building norm. This obsolete pattern is root cause of sprawl in rich and poor countries alike. Check out the low rise building pattern norm in poor countries. Lag in infrastructure delivery also has a link to the costs involved given spread out development pattern.

  2. Charles Wathen
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Where can I find more detail information on how their public housing works and is financed?

  3. Darrell Marcy
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing such a really great piece, Neal. It puts into high profile the absudity of the anti-government crowd. How do people think they’re going to get good government out of people who want to destroy government. (The anti-tax, flush goverment down the toilet crowd.)

    The work in Singapore could only be done by people who believe in government; who believe government can do good work. Why doesn’t Singapore’s 1% sabotage their government as it does here? An interesting place to look would be their election laws. How do people get into government in Singapore? My hypothesis would be, it’s not by garnering the greatest amount of money from the corporations and the 1% of the country, as it is here.

  4. Michael
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Great article, sounds like a great model for responsible public housing and tenants. But in response to Darrel, I think the 1%ers in Singapore are much much chummier with their government than those in the US!

  5. K F Khan
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s a totally different social philosophy than is not to going to be easily transplanted anywhere that envisions an enlightened shared community life with all the manifest benefits mentioned. What we can do is at least heed the urgency to stop low-rise sprawl at Maraj Fahim says above.