Commentary: Direct interventions, not just social mixing, needed to narrow housing inequality

Commentary: Direct interventions, not just social mixing, needed to narrow housing inequality

The current concern for better social mixing stems from recognition that there are two housing regimes – public renting and ownership – which offer vastly unequal experiences that are largely shaped by non-geographical factors, says one observer.

Man in park near HDB flats
File photo of a man sitting at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. (Photo: TODAY/Christopher Toh)

SINGAPORE: In recent months, increasing social mixing in public housing estates has been suggested as a way to reduce social stratification and inequality in Singapore. This can be done, for instance, by integrating HDB rental and sold flats within individual blocks.

Housing inequality mirrors wider economic inequality. Particular housing policies furthers the gap between the housing standards accessible to people with different economic capacities.

While social diversity in geographical communities is important for many reasons, it is not sufficient for reducing these real inequalities in housing experience. More direct interventions are also needed.

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HOUSING INEQUALITY AND HOUSING POLICIES

Social mixing is sometimes regarded as a way to avoid ghettorisation in Singapore.

Comparisons are drawn with places like the US where poverty concentration in large subsidised housing projects has been associated with neighbourhood deterioration and poor social outcomes.

But public rental housing in Singapore is thinly dispersed across many towns. Single or pairs of rental blocks are found alongside sold housing. Ghettorisation is therefore not the problem here.

Instead the main concern is the wide gap in housing resources and experiences between public rental tenants and flat owners. This housing inequality is the result of forces beyond the housing system as well as specific housing policies.

In our public housing system, market participation and performance translate directly into CPF wealth, personal savings and purchasing power. 

Over the years, the steady introduction of public housing options at the top end both responded to and encouraged “upgrading” aspirations. Housing was promoted as investment for old age income security.

(ry) helping joy 1
Over the years, housing was promoted as investment for old age income security, says assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Ng Kok Hoe. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Housing consumption therefore bears the imprint of general economic inequality resulting from the interaction of market earnings, redistributive policies and familial resources.

These forces produce the unequal groups we are now finding ways to integrate in housing estates. Housing experiences will be less uneven when society as a whole is more equal.

From the early 1980s, the construction of smaller flat types for sale stopped, to be resumed only in the 2000s. Meanwhile larger flats ceased to be offered in the public rental scheme. The profound differences in the public housing system today – smaller flats to let and larger flats for sale – are the result of these decisions.

RENTAL HOUSING POLICY MAY BE PRODUCING WORRYING SEGREGATION

Housing inequality is also felt through specific rental housing policies. People who need public rental housing face many hardships. The income ceiling of S$1,500 per month has not been raised since 2003, which means it has become much stricter in real terms.

This ceiling directly penalises families with more children because it disregards household size. Space and privacy are persistent issues, as only 1- and 2-room flats are available to rent and the single tenant is required to share a flat with another unrelated person.

Short tenancies of two years create insecurity. Although the tenancies are routinely renewed and evictions are unheard of, tenants are concerned because they have no legal basis to remain in their flats beyond the two years offered each time.

As the building of new rental flats stopped completely between 1982 and 2006, most of the rental housing stock is very old.

Old HDB flats in Singapore
Flats under the Public Rental Scheme are heavily subsidised to cater to Singapore households with no other housing options. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

A survey I conducted with more than 1,000 households in 2016 found that rental tenants are far more likely to report problems with their living conditions, such as with estate hygiene and maintenance, than the average HDB resident. Anxiety about housing is common.

The most worrying segregation in public housing is therefore not in the patterns of social interaction or the physical locations of rental and sold flats, but the standards and quality of the rental and ownership housing regimes.

DIRECT INTERVENTIONS TO NARROW HOUSING INEQUALITY NEEDED

Since 2014, the HDB has introduced integrated blocks that combine rental and sold housing in several BTO developments. This extends the longstanding policy of having diverse flat types within each town, and refines the grain of tenure mixing from the neighbourhood to the block level.

Living in close proximity increases opportunities for meaningful interactions that encourage mutual understanding. More diverse social networks can generate economic opportunities for the individual and build social trust. 

Diversity also promotes shared access to public spaces and accords with our instinct to build a strong national identity.

However, neighbourhood diversity does not guarantee social cohesion. Studies across different countries have found that ethnic diversity within a locality can be associated with weaker social trust and withdrawal from civic participation.

Empathy and cohesion are built not just on physical co-existence but also shared experiences, including housing experiences. 

The stark differences between rental and ownership in terms of housing access, quality, security, and choice will not be softened through friendly mingling with neighbours. They have to be directly addressed.

PRESSING NEED FOR BETTER RENTAL HOUSING CONDITIONS

Better access to rental housing requires reasonable income ceilings that reflect population earnings and household size, and an adequate housing supply. Although the rental housing stock has been growing since 2006, once the income ceiling fairly reflects current income standards, the eligible applicant pool is likely to increase significantly.

A larger rental housing supply that covers a higher proportion of the population has the additional advantage of drawing greater public support than the current system which may be seen as benefiting a small minority.

hdb flats (2)
An HDB block in Singapore.

Housing quality should not be overlooked for people who are unable to afford ownership. 

Quality may be measured against basic space standards that respect needs for privacy and dignity. The expansion of the rental housing stock will allow co-residing singles to get their own flats and provides an opportunity to introduce larger flat types for bigger families.

Security may come from longer tenancies so residents need not worry about shelter. For a start, these could be offered to families with children who will benefit from having a stable living arrangement, and persons who have very little prospect to improve their income situations due to physical and mental limitations.

As for choice, there could be more flexible options between two-year rentals and purchases of 99-year leases. A less discontinuous menu of housing options will increase the chances for mobility. The short-lease options for 2-room Flexi flats for older people is already a move in this direction.

READ: 99-year HDB leases a chance to review home ownership and retirement policies, a commentary.

READ: Singapore’s public housing policy has done its job splendidly. Maybe it is time for a makeover? A commentary.

Homeownership offers clear advantages to those who can afford it, such as housing security and asset accumulation. But it also comes with challenges.

Financing housing requires sustained, stable employment with adequate pay, which may not always be attainable.

In the CPF system, homeownership is often achieved at the expense of cash savings for retirement. Monetisation schemes address this issue but expose old-age income security to the volatility of the housing market and are further complicated by the expiry of HDB flat leases.

Therefore choice must also mean respecting that people are able to decide whether and when they are ready for homeownership, and recognising that those who need long-term rental housing have housing needs now which need to be met.

The current concern for better social mixing stems from recognition that there are two housing regimes – public renting and ownership – for people from different economic classes. These regimes offer vastly unequal experiences that are largely shaped by non-geographical factors.

Rather than maintaining this differentiation and physically co-locating the flats, housing inequality can be narrowed by better meeting every resident’s housing needs, regardless of economic resources.

In this way, housing policy can provide the foundation for a more equal society.

Ng Kok Hoe is assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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