Source: Bloomberg CityLab
Singapore’s affordable housing program worked so well that some of its subsidized apartments now resell for more than $700,000.
(This story is part of an ongoing series on the home designs that define cities. Read more here about iconic floor plans in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.)
In the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” the main characters move between opulent mansions and colonial-era hotels in Singapore. But the reality is the vast majority of families live in modestly-sized apartments built by the government—concentrated, high-rise housing estates that elsewhere in the world might, to some, conjure images of low-income urban blight. Yet here, the concrete suburbs are well-maintained by the state and their basic, functional flats are lovingly renovated by the owners, often with the help of professional interior designers using the finest materials.How then did a nation with the world’s highest concentration of millionaires and one of the most expensive housing markets in Asia—luxury penthouses sell for as much as S$74 million ($54 million)—become able to offer every newlywed young couple a home they can afford?
The answer stems from a decision made more than half a century ago that gave Singaporeans, rich and poor, a direct stake in the country’s prosperity, one that led to a nation with one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world and yet where more than 80% of the population live in government-built flats.
For many visitors, Singapore’s iconic building design is the stately colonial black-and-white bungalow, a timelessly elegant construction that blends architecture designed to mitigate the tropical heat with elements of an English country villa. Once the homes of British civil servants and senior officials, most are now owned by the government and leased to wealthy expats. Those available for private sale have fetched as much as S$218 million.
A traditional black-and-white bungalow in the Nepal Park area of Singapore.Photographer: Charles Pertwee/Bloomberg
But there are now only about 500 black-and-white bungalows left in Singapore, and only a few dozen of those are the grand standalone houses with carriage porches, sloping lawns and lush gardens that epitomize the design. The real hero of Singapore’s astonishing housing boom has much humbler origins.
In 1959, the newly self-governing city faced a major crisis. The success of the port over a century and a half had drawn hundreds of thousands of immigrants from China, Malaysia, India and other parts of Asia, but government and private housing construction had failed to keep up. Overcrowding was ubiquitous with streets of two and three-story shophouses clustered around the Singapore River often subdivided into tiny one-room apartments where whole families lived. Many immigrants lived in dense squatter towns with no proper sanitation. Racial tensions were high.
The government’s answer in 1960 was to set up the Housing Development Board, tasked with rapidly increasing the supply of homes for the poor to rent. The following year, on the afternoon of Hari Raya Haji, one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year, a fire broke out in the shanty town of Bukit Ho Swee, razing an area the size of eight football fields of densely packed slums. Four people died and 16,000 were made homeless. Within a year the HDB had managed to rehouse the survivors, winning over a skeptical public. By the middle of the decade it had housed 400,000 people.
Many HDB flats have a store room, which, in all apartments built since 1996, has become a bomb shelter with reinforced concrete walls and a massive steel door to protect the occupants in case the Republic is attacked. Illustration: Josh KramerPhotographer: Josh Kramer
The early flats were starkly Spartan—massive slab blocks up to 10 stories tall with 12 flats per floor, accessed by open corridors running along the front of the building. Water and electricity were provided, but no fitments other than a squat toilet and shower in the tiny bathroom and a sink in the kitchen. But they were clean, safe and most importantly, they were well maintained.
While the government’s action helped solve the housing crisis, it was the decision to begin offering subsidized flats for sale in 1964 that laid the foundation for Singapore’s real-estate success. Under its “Home Ownership for the People Scheme” around 2,000 two- and three-bedroom apartments were sold to lower-middle-income citizens in a new estate in the district of Queenstown for as little as S$4,900 each. Like most HDB sales, they were offered on a 99-year lease and buyers were forbidden from reselling the property for at least five years.
Once that period finished, owners of flats in prestigious complexes stood to make a sizeable profit. Even in those venerable blocks in Queenstown, an unmodernized two-bedroom unit can now sell for around S$220,000, with only 43 years left on the lease. In 2016, the total resale value of Singapore’s HDB apartments was estimated to be more than S$400 billion.
The blocks were built in neighborhood clusters – miniature new towns with playgrounds, food centers and local shops. The larger ones, like Queenstown, had a health clinic, a community center and a library. And like most things in Singapore’s meticulously planned economy, the management of the estates was integrated into policies that included everything from the design of the city’s mass transit system to racial integration.
HDB developments are often planned in tandem with Singapore’s main public transit network. Photographer: Caroline Pang/Moment via Getty Images
In a policy that began in 1989, HDB blocks require minimum levels of occupancy of each of the main ethnic groups in the city — Chinese, Malay and Indian — to prevent the formation of “racial enclaves.” The government continues to implement what one senior minister once called the “most intrusive social policy in Singapore” to encourage social harmony.
One of the best-known estates the HDB built is Marine Parade, named after a seaside promenade that has long gone. It was the first one on a massive stretch of reclaimed land along the southeastern coast of the island. What was once a sleepy Kampong, or village, of attap-roofed houses among coconut trees, strung along a sandy beach is now home to about 21,600 residents in more than 7,800 apartments. Built in the 1970s, it is one of the few HDB projects where no more blocks were added after the original construction schedule and none have yet been demolished.
The venerable estate, now separated from the sea by 300 meters of public park and a six-lane highway, contains classic examples of HDB floor plans, including the sought-after “point blocks” that rise 25 stories. Layouts are functional and modular to maximize use of space, with bedrooms and kitchen leading directly off a living area. As the illustrated floor plan above shows, many have a store room, which, in all apartments built since 1996, has become a bomb shelter with reinforced concrete walls and a massive steel door to protect the occupants in case the Republic is attacked.
One high-floor Marine Parade HDB with panoramic sea views was recently advertised for a hair over S$1 million, with only about 53 years left on the lease.
While many governments have focused public housing programs on the poorest members of society—often allowing the austere concrete blocks to deteriorate into urban slums—Singapore recognized that these homes represented the biggest stake its citizens had in the prosperity of the country. The HDB not only maintained its buildings and grounds carefully, but periodically upgraded estates with new elevators, walkways and facelifts.
The entrance to an HDB flat.Photographer: Carlina Teteris/Moment via Getty IMages
The potential financial gain from the value of the flats became so important to the nation’s citizens that it was used as a political tool, with the ruling People’s Action Party in the 1980s announcing that it would prioritize maintenance of estates in constituencies that elected a PAP member. The party has never lost a general election.
Singapore now has more than 1 million HDB flats. In the last financial year, the government handed over keys to at least 16,600 new apartments and almost 70,000 more were under construction. As the years passed, the HDB grew and its projects became more modern and sophisticated.
While most are still visibly descendants of those early Queenstown blocks—basic starter homes with minimal fixtures—some of the new premium blocks resemble private condominium developments.
Across the road from one of the last surviving original Queenstown blocks is Sky Terrace@Dawson, the latest addition to a vast estate of tower blocks up to 47 stories high with rooftop gardens more than 400 feet above the street level and sky gardens linking the towers. When the government offered flats for sale in 2009 before construction began, subsidized prices for four-room units started from S$373,000. When the minimum ownership period expired this year, four-room flats were being listed for more than S$800,000. Bigger apartments in the development, with balconies looking out across the leafy suburb of Dempsey Hill and its streets of billionaires’ villas and ambassadors homes, are already over the S$1 million mark. For an affordable housing program, that could be a new benchmark.