In the early days of Singapore’s independence, there was a housing crisis in Singapore. Many people lived in illegally built slums and crowded squatter settlements with poor sanitation and hygiene. To solve the housing problem, the British colonial government established the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1927 to provide public housing.
After Singapore gained self-governance, the government set up a new statutory board, the Housing & Development Board (HDB), in 1960 which took over the role of providing public housing from SIT.
The Home Ownership for the People Scheme was launched on 12 February 1964 by the HDB to help Singaporeans purchase their own homes. Promoting home ownership and a sustainable housing policy help foster a sense of rootedness in Singapore by giving a largely migrant population a stake in the country.
In conjunction with HDB’s 60th anniversary in 2020, we looked at how the landscape of public housing has changed over the years using historical data.
To ensure that even low income Singaporeans can afford housing, public housing is heavily subsidized and the government has put in place eligibility criteria such as an income ceiling to ensure that subsidized housing is only available to the low and middle income families.
The nature of public housing changed in tandem with the aspirations of Singaporeans. From the sole purpose of providing a roof over people’s heads, it has also become an asset that appreciates over time as Singapore’s economy grows. In 1971, public housing policies were adjusted to allow Singaporeans to sell their houses in the resale market.
The resale market allowed more affluent Singaporeans who were not eligible to buy public housing directly from the government to own such property too, but opening up the public housing market meant that people could now speculate as well. Prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, demand rose and resale prices soared. The government responded by building more public housing and providing more subsidies to keep them affordable.
The financial crisis dealt a huge blow to Singapore’s property market and prices plummeted thereafter. The oversupply of public housing became a problem and from then on, the government adjusted its approach to public housing supply. Instead of building the apartment blocks first and then selling the units upon completion, the HDB introduced the Built-to-Order (BTO) scheme where Singaporeans can express interest and book units. The HDB will only proceed with construction when the majority of units are booked.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Singapore’s property market was affected but quickly regained momentum as the economy recovered. Public housing resale transaction prices broke historical records and hit an all time high in 2013. A slew of property cooling measures finally curbed speculations and the resale market achieved a soft landing.
Queenstown, initiated in 1952 and completed in the 1960s, is Singapore’s first satellite town. The estate is named after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in commemoration of her coronation. Block 45, 48 and 49 along Stirling Road are the very first public housing built by the HDB.
In 1966, Toa Payoh was established as the second satellite town. Schools, clinics, wet markets, shops and many other facilities were also built in the town, making it convenient for residents to go about their daily lives.
Subsequently over the years, towns like Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi were established. As these towns grew, newer public housing adopted bolder architectural designs, these include L-shaped, U-shaped, Y-shaped and cylindrical layouts, creating the distinctive characteristics of each locality.
Newer towns developed in recent years, including Seng Kang, Punggol and Tengah, evolve alongside the changing needs and aspirations of a new generation of Singaporeans. More greenery and even waterways are planned in estates to create a more pleasurable living environment. At the same time, the older towns like Ang Mo Kio and Queenstown are progressively rejuvenated through improvement works.
As Singapore’s population grew and construction technology improved, the HDB began building taller public housings. By the 1990s, some apartment blocks were more than 30 storeys high.
A new breed of high-rise public housing was also introduced in 2005. Under the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS), private developers could design, construct and sell public housing units. Many of these DBSS flats offered novel features such as balconies and full-height windows which were rare in public housing. While these flats gained popularity initially, high prices and design issues became growing concerns and the scheme was suspended in 2012.
More high-rise quality public housing projects have been launched since then. In 2006, four blocks of 40-storey high flats were constructed in the town of Toa Payoh. A few years later in 2009, the landmark 50-storey high public housing estate, Pinnacle@Duxton, was completed and became one of the most iconic buildings of Singapore’s skyline.
Looking down from high-rise buildings, what features can be found in the island country? A photographer from zaobao.sg climbed the four tallest HDB houses in the area and brought the scenery outside the window to you.
In the early days of Singapore’s independence, most public housings were small units such as 1-room, 2-room and 3-room flats. As the country grew and Singaporeans pivoted towards bigger quality housing, the government also launched two-storey 5-room apartments and jumbo-sized Executive Apartments.
More than 80% of SIngaporeans live in public flats, making Singapore one of the countries with the highest rates of home ownership. Public housing has also evolved over time to meet the changing needs and aspirations of Singaporeans. In recent years, with the growing importance of sustainable living, technology is also employed to reduce energy consumption and create environmentally-friendly homes as well.