Housing a nation – today and tomorrow

When Kit Chan performed Home at this year’s National Day Parade, she struck a chord with many in the crowd, including me. This is my home. This is where people can “build our dreams together”. This is what “will stay within me, wherever I may choose to go”.

Over the last few months, in this series of articles, I have explained how the Government strives to foster a sense of home and belonging for all Singaporeans through a massive public housing programme. In this final column, let me sum up how the Housing & Development Board delivers this housing commitment in three ways: Homes for the masses, home ownership and homes for life.

HOUSING FOR HOMEBUYERS

Homes for the masses: The HDB builds and prices flats to achieve home ownership for the masses. Unlike some other countries where public housing caters to the poorest minority, the HDB’s mission is to house the masses so that we can build an inclusive nation. But we face two growing challenges.

As we become a nation of home owners, demand from flat buyers – many with existing homes – has grown more volatile and sentiment-driven. Oversupply is as worrying as undersupply. Therefore, the HDB moved to the current Build-To-Order system, so that its new flat supply can respond to demand changes, while keeping a small buffer for contingencies.

As Singapore progresses, the people’s aspirations are also rising and becoming more diverse. While standard flats will continue to form the bulk of new flat supply, the HDB has to build different flats for different budgets and aspirations, so that public housing remains an inclusive home for Singaporeans.

Home ownership: This is the second hallmark of our housing system. We provide homes for ownership, rather than for rent, so that Singaporeans have a clear stake in the country’s prosperity. But even as flats appreciate in value to the benefit of home owners, housing must remain affordable for first-time buyers. The HDB therefore sets aside new BTO flats for first-timers and prices them at a substantial subsidy relative to market value. The HDB also provides housing grants for first-timers to buy resale flats. This helps to ensure affordability and equity in subsidies.

Today, nine in 10 residents own their HDB flats and about 15,000 young couples become home owners every year. Beyond international measures like the Home Price Index (HPI) and the Debt Service Ratio (DSR), our high ownership rate is the clearest indicator that flats remain affordable for first-timers. Most couples buying new flats use only 20 to 25 per cent of their monthly income through CPF contributions to pay for their housing loans, without any cash.

For the minority who cannot readily afford to own flats, public rental flats represent the final safety net. Even then, the HDB and social agencies strive to help these families improve their situations so that home ownership remains a long-term hope for them.

HOUSING FOR HOME OWNERS

Homes for life: The HDB takes a life-cycle approach to its relationship with residents. It helps young couples buy their first homes. It rejuvenates the homes and estates of the existing 900,000 home owners. It also helps older home owners right-size their homes for retirement while they remain staying within their community. Ultimately, HDB flats are not only homes but also an asset whose value can be unlocked, if needed.

Rejuvenating our homes: By 2015, more than 200,000 flats will be at least 30 years old. For older flats to remain attractive and sustain their value for home owners, the HDB embarked on a massive estate renewal programme since the ’90s, focusing on Main Upgrading, Interim Upgrading, and Lift Upgrading (LUP).

Since 2007, estate renewal has taken on a larger dimension under the “Remaking Our Heartland” programme. This goes beyond upgrading works by HDB and pulls together efforts by different agencies to give an entire town a makeover. We will breathe new life into the heartlands by injecting new housing, rejuvenating town centres and developing new amenities and recreational areas. These include park connectors, cycling paths, heritage trails, and Active, Beautiful and Clean Water features.

In addition to enhancing the value of HDB flats, rejuvenation must focus on making towns more sustainable. Sustainability is about being able to use our land, energy and water more effectively as well as reducing waste. Punggol will be developed as our first eco-town. Lessons learnt there will be drawn for use in existing towns.

Right-sizing our homes: By 2030, one in five residents are expected to be aged 65 and above. Our HDB estates and policies must prepare for the different needs of elderly home owners. The HDB has begun to upgrade our physical environment to be more elder-friendly. All estates will be barrier-free by next year. The LUP is also on track to provide 100 per cent lift access to all eligible blocks by 2014.

As our population ages and family sizes shrink, Singaporeans may face less family support in their old age. Some may want to right-size and unlock their housing asset. HDB has put in place various options. Under the Lease Buyback Scheme, elderly home owners can receive a long-term income stream without uprooting from their surroundings. Elderly flat owners can also rent out spare rooms or whole flats for income, as their children grow up and move out. The elderly can also choose to right-size and buy studio apartments that are better equipped for their needs.

Building cohesive communities: Besides looking after individual home buyers and owners, the HDB’s larger mission is to build cohesive communities. The HDB experience is an important part of the Singapore story where people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and incomes live harmoniously together as a community.

This is why the HDB spends considerable effort on planning our estates, down to the layout of blocks, precincts and neighbourhoods. HDB void decks, playgrounds and precinct pavilions are just some of the spaces carefully designed for residents to mix and mingle as part of their daily routine.

HOMES WHERE WE BELONG

When the HDB was formed in 1960, its pressing challenge then was to solve the huge housing shortage for Singaporeans. Fifty years on, the HDB has succeeded beyond expectations and received numerous international accolades for its achievements. I am thankful for the selfless contributions of the many men and women in the HDB through the years who have made it possible.

What about the next 50 years and beyond? Clearly, the focus of the HDB’s challenge will evolve. Besides providing attractive and affordable flats for new homebuyers, the HDB’s greater challenge will be to sustain the quality of life, community bonds and value that HDB flats bring to home owners, even as our estates mature.

While the challenges in the next phase will be different, the HDB’s core mission of building homes and bringing hope of a better life for hardworking Singaporean families remains unchanged. With the continued support of other agencies, community leaders, and residents, I am confident that we can build an even better home for all – one where “we’ll build our dreams together. Just like we’ve done before”.

To all those who have followed this series of articles and given me comments, feedback and suggestions, let me say a sincere “thank you”. I am also grateful to Today for providing me this platform to engage Singaporeans on this very important subject. Finally, I wish everyone season’s greetings and a very happy and successful 2011.

By Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development.

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