By Kate Lambert
When people think of Singapore they think, often, of money. The city state is very rich compared to other economies in the region. Very pro-business, with low taxes and a very attractive investment climate. The port of Singapore is second only to Shanghai in terms of cargo weight. Without a welfare safety net as large as comparable Western economies, and a traditionally self-reliant populace, you would expect very expensive housing, lots of homelessness, and crowded and in-demand rentals.
But Singapore decided to think outside the box. 80% of Singaporeans live in government-built apartments. Somewhere around 90% of people own their place. There is virtually no homelessness and communities appear at least to be cohesive, balanced, functional with very low crime. How did the tiny country manage to avoid an issue that is becoming increasingly pervasive in most of the rest of the world? Singapore is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Asia. This generally refers to their neutrality but, in this case, points to a national culture of seeing an issue, finding a solution and implementing it rigorously (see Switzerland’s response to drug addiction).
After World War II and Independence from the United Kingdom and then Malaysia, Singapore had massive overcrowding issues, slums, an increasing population, communities segregated by race and religion, and high unemployment. Half the population was illiterate. The story of how housing was turned around is a small but fascinating facet of the total transformation of Singapore’s economy.
- The first thing they did was build. They built lots and lots of housing. Mostly high rise, apartment towers. In many other places this has been a dreadful decision. Because it creates soulless grey cities, devoid of culture and community and full of crime. They counteracted this by,
- Making sure everyone had a stake. Instead of renting places to tenants, they sold places to pretty much everyone. The better off could buy more expensive places but the middle class and working class people were financially incentivised by grants and able to buy as well. In the same neighbourhoods. And these could have been poorly designed. Instead,
- They thought carefully and designed mini-towns, with food courts, employment, healthcare, education and social provision built right in. They counteracted the possible social division by,
- Having a ‘quota’ system to try to make sure communities were balanced in terms of ethnic and religious make-up. No community can exclude people from another race or religion, something which was the norm before this housing. Different family make-ups are accommodated by,
- 2-5 bedroom apartments and even places for 3 generations of family so people can afford to live comfortably with family members. There is even an incentive to live near aging parents. It’s affordable because,
- The prices, even without a grant are reasonable. A recent sale was around $170,000 for a apartment. With a grant that price drops under $100,000. Condos last year were about $700,000 in Vancouver.
Lessons for Canada
- Everyone can be housed. It is possible, and desirable for everyone to have a roof over their head. That should be the starting point and solutions that don’t offer that aren’t solutions at all.
- Government, even in a capitalist democracy, can get into the housing market. It’s not communism to have government housing and it doesn’t have to be ugly, socially deprived or divisive either. You can have beautiful, functional government housing.
- Finding ways to include people meaningfully in their communities should be at the heart of housing policy. Socially, economically and emotionally. Giving people a ‘stake’ in their community builds community.
- Housing is a staple need, like water, air and food. Making it completely unaffordable for vast sections of people doesn’t work. Housing needs to be affordable and it is the job of government to make sure citizens’ basic needs are met.
If Singapore can in 60 years go from slums, overcrowding and squatter settlements of 100s of thousands of people to almost 0% homelessness, Canada can go from 200,000 homeless people, unaffordable housing and a chronic housing shortage to 0% homelessness much more quickly.
*5.612 million people
*PIT count in 2017 found 180 people sleeping rough
*The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said it assists about 300 homeless cases each year
*A sovereign city-state like Monaco or Vatican City
*Ethnically and religiously diverse
*One of the most densely populated places in the world
*One party (the PAP) has led Singapore since independence from the UK