Singapore is often touted as being an exorbitantly expensive place to live. It’s so recognizably pricey in fact, that the small city-state recently snatched first place in 2014’s list of Most Expensive Cities in the world. But as the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times points out, perhaps this global Cost of Living exercise is more a metric of expatriates buying imported cheese and filet mignon, rather than the long-term costs borne by locals. After all, the Times explained, Singaporeans are doing quite well.
So I was curious: since housing is arguably the biggest cost of living in any major global city (not really prix fixe dinners or Broadway musicals), how does the Singaporean housing situation stack up to a place like New York City, which we all know has a pretty serious affordable housing shortage, but didn’t make it anywhere near the top of Most Expensive Cities list.
Well as it turns out, Singapore, with a population of over 5.4 million people, has a massive affordable homeownership program. Just how big is it?
81% of all Singaporean residents live in public housing, and 95% of those public housing residents actually own their home.
Compare that to only 4.8 % of NYC residents living in public housing, all of it rental.*
So how did Singapore do this?
During the late-1950’s, Singapore was in a dire situation: they had few natural resources, their unemployment rate was around 12%, and the majority of the population lived in squatter settlements and slums. Race riots, inflation, leftover scars from World War II, and debilitating relationships with her neighbors were pushing Singapore to a breaking point.
Seen as prevention against civil unrest and a cure for dismal health and safety conditions, the Housing & Development Board (HDB) was created in 1960 to plan for growth and slum-clearance. HDB estimated that 147,000 new housing units would be needed over the next 10 years to match resettlement and population growth, but the private sector was only constructing about 2,500 units per year and at price points unattainable to the majority of the population.
So HDB developed a five-year plan and built over 54,000 new units of low-income rental housing by 1965. That’s about 1 new home per hour for five years straight.
Once the most at-need populations began moving into the rental housing, the Singaporean government shifted their focus to expand homeownership opportunities. In 1964, the “Homeownership for the People Scheme” was introduced which saw homeownership as a way to create political stability, buffer residents against inflation through housing appreciation, and as a boon for economic growth.
The scheme was relatively simple: Singapore’s HDB would plan, design, and construct public housing (another 93,000 units were built between 1965 and 1969), and then it would provide down-payment assistance and low-interest mortgages for residents to purchase them.
In 1968, the government began leveraging the Central Provident Fund (CPF), Singapore’s version of social security, to finance the market-side of the homeownership program. The government would provide no-interest loans to HDB, and then HDB would provide mortgages to homebuyers at 0.1% more than the going CPF savings rate. This allowed HDB to provide 30-year mortgages requiring only 10% down, sometimes offering additional grants to qualified homebuyers.
HDB was able to do this because there was a direct mandate from the government:
- There was massive government investment via:
- Comprehensive Town Planning;
- Public land allocation for housing by means of 99-year leases; and
- Provision of financial resources for building development and maintenance.
- They created a vision-led management system:
- Competitive public pay of planners, architects, engineers and contractors;
- A policy of zero-tolerance for corruption; and
- Merit-based hiring.
In less than 10 years, the country changed its image from villages and squatter settlements to apartment buildings made of glass and concrete. Skipping ahead to present-day, the rental and homeownership programs not only exist, but they have also expanded.
But in order to get an apartment, there is a lottery, complete with a stringent set of requirements and priority-boosting bonuses. Some of the requirements and priorities for obtaining apartments include:
For the Public Rental Scheme:
- You need to be a Singaporean citizen;
- Be a minimum of 21 years old;
- Cannot make more than S$1,500/month gross (US$14,400/year);
- Cannot own an existing property or rent an existing HDB property;
- Must be married, engaged, or have a dependent child OR can live with another single person if you are both above the age of 35;
- Only Studios or 1-bedroom apartments are available.
For the Homeownership Scheme:
- You need to be a Singaporean citizen;
- Be a minimum of 21 years old;
- Must form a “family nucleus” – spouse, parents, siblings, or a joint single-person purchase;
- Cannot make more than S$5,000/month (US$48,000/year) for 1-2 bedroom units and S$10,000/month (US$96,000/year) for 3 bedroom units; larger units are set aside for multi-generational families.
- Cannot own an existing property (either first-time or second-time homebuyer); and
- Priority for locating within 2km of parents home.
To resell a unit after purchasing via the Homeownership Lottery:
- There is a Minimum Occupancy Period of 5 years;
- There is a Resale Levy of between 10%-25% of the sales price depending on unit size;
- The owner can rent a room at any time, or can rent the whole apartment after 5 years.
There are a multitude of other Schemes available, including an Aging-In-Place scheme which prioritizes seniors who want to downsize to studio-apartments, to be relocated within either their same building or within 2 km of their existing home.
And while the developments seem a bit tower-in-the-park style, the interiors seem pretty nice:
Nearly all new housing in Singapore is built by the government and sold via a lottery system. The vast majority of the private housing market really just consists of the resale of homes from first-time homebuyers. This allows the homeowner to “cash-out” with the resultant appreciation after 5 years if they’d like, and pay back into the housing fund via the resale levy. And there is no cap on resale limits, which are often double or triple the original purchase price. A couple hundred g’s would be quite a nice way to start off life for a young couple.
It’s a trickle-up housing model with a heap of social-engineering tossed in, too.
I’m not sure a lot of the requirements or lottery-priorities would fly here in the US (I’m not sure some are even legal according to Fair Housing laws), but there are some interesting ideas to be found. I also recognize Singapore still has some inequalities (and huge amounts of restrictions on personal freedoms) in their so-called millionaires’ island, but they may have some fruitful affordable housing advice to bestow on New York City’s policy-makers.
*Being fully aware of programs like Mitchell-Lama and Nehemiah, which are similar but don’t come close to Singapore’s development scale and government mandate. ________________________________