Public housing: Size does matter

The shrinking size of public flats does not necessarily mean a lower quality of living, Housing and Development Board (HDB) chief executive Cheong Koon Hean said last week. She said residents could use good interior design and arrange their furniture to create better storage options that will give that feeling of space.

She said that while HDB flats had become smaller, Singapore’s average household size had also decreased. While big families were common in the past, households today have only two to four members, she noted. The average household size fell from 4.9 in 1989 to 3.5 last year.

An example compiled by one reporter – who lives in a four-room flat in Toa Payoh – showed that the average amount of space per person rose from 21 sq m in 1989 to 26 per sq m in 2006.

This is an increase of 24 per cent of living space per capita – substantial progress, whichever way you look at it. But statistics are not the be all and end all.

The feedback that I have received from some young owners has been negative, especially as one puts it, Dr Cheong is supposed to look after their interests. Another asked whether her comments indicated that new flat sizes would remain small or shrink even further?

To be fair to Dr Cheong, their unhappiness may not stem solely from the small flat sizes but also from pricing and location issues. It could also be due to unmet expectations given that most of these young owners had lived in their parents’ flats that were much bigger.

The small sizes of the flats are never felt more keenly than during house-warming parties, which are supposed to celebrate the hosts’ new-found status as proud owners of their dream home. Yet, guests end up standing for most of the time or spill out into the corridors.

Singaporeans also feel that each succeeding generation should enjoy a better lifestyle as the economy grows. Instead, young couples are getting smaller flats in further-flung areas with fewer amenities, even as the quality of flats has risen. It appears the trade-offs have not been enough to show a net gain.

For me, as an economy matures and income levels grow, the higher-order needs come more into play. The need for privacy grows – which is why I feel a minimum of three bedrooms is necessary for all flat types – a room each for the parents, the boys and the girls. It is not uncommon to hear of households moving for this reason.

When social interaction becomes unbearable, an individual retreats to his or her own personal space. You cannot really do this in a small flat.

In land-scarce Singapore, some of life’s luxuries are already out of reach for the vast majority of us. In my time, the dream of most young households was to own a landed property with enough room to do a spot of gardening.

Other luxuries – like owning a car – may soon become out of reach for most Singaporeans. No matter how much Singapore progresses or how much income levels rise, some things are just not going to happen. There is just not enough land.

But providing most Singaporeans with a bigger flat – and I do not mean large – is possible. We can always build higher. As for costs, it is all a matter of tweaking our flat pricing formulas – which I feel are due for a review anyway.

At the moment, our average living space per person is closer to that in a developing country than in a developed economy. Let us give our citizens a flat size befitting our developed economy status.

By Colin Tan – head of research and consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International.

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