Singapore is a small country and the third most densely populated state in the world after Macau and Monaco. With a population of 5 million and barely 710 square kilometres of land area, the scarcity of land is acute and land planning is vital in order to maintain a decent quality of life for the people of Singapore.
The Housing and Development Board (“HDB”) is the official government body tasked to take on the issues of public housing in Singapore. Given the shortage of land, the HDB’s responsibility is no small one, and the HDB provides housing by building flats and leasing them out (in 99-year leases) to Singaporeans. More than 80 percent of Singaporeans currently live in these HDB flats. In recent times, however, many Singaporeans have expressed disgruntlement and dismay at how difficult it is to obtain a HDB flat, and how expensive it is.
Some relevant observations:
- Flat prices have risen far more quickly over the years compared to salary increases (one commentator has estimated that flat prices have increased by more than 30 times since the 1970s, compared to a mere 2.7 times increase in the median salary of a graduate since the 1970s).
- Many households today need to take long term (20 to 30 years) loans in order to afford their flat leases.
- In recent years, fewer flats are being built. Yet the population has increased more rapidly than before.
- New HDB flats are invariably many times oversubscribed, indicating that demand far exceeds supply.
Two policies adopted by the HDB appear to aggravate the problem of public housing affordability and availability instead of alleviating it:
- The HDB deliberately restricts the supply of flats below the demand level, thus reducing the number of available housing.
- Since mid-1990s, the HDB prices new flats at the market rate instead of at the building cost, thus increasing flat prices and profiting from them.
Can the HDB do this? Well, one fundamental concern is that if HDB flat prices revert to a cost-based approach, the tenants who had previously leased them at market rates and who are still living in the flats would be unfairly prejudiced and burdened with negative value assets. How can we address this concern?
What if (and let us think out of the box here and envisage a government who is serious in tackling the housing problem and who is open and willing to consider all options) what if the HDB were to refund its excess profits made from market-based leases back to the tenants who are still living in the flats? i.e., refund the difference between the market price and the cost price at the time of lease? The refunds may be made partly in CPF and partly in cash, depending on the actual proportions used to lease the respective flats at the time. Then there would be no prejudice to these tenants. The refunds will only apply to tenants who are still living in their flats. Previous tenants who have already sold off their HDB flat leases would have done so at market rates, and no refunds need to be provided to them since no negative equity losses will be suffered by them.
The mistake (dare we call it that?) of pegging HDB flat prices to the market rate could be corrected, and going forward, Singaporeans will be able to lease public housing at far more affordable cost prices.
Ideologically, the HDB, which is a statutory board entrusted with public housing, should not make a profit from Singapore citizens. After all, having a place to live is an essential need, and in land scarce Singapore where housing options are severely limited, Singaporeans should be entitled to public housing at affordable prices as a basic right.