Firsthand: Can the 4G leaders inspire young S'poreans' confidence in the future of housing?

We don't have a crystal ball, but it doesn't hurt to guess.

Ilyda Chua | May 14, 2023, 02:27 PM

Firsthand Takes On: Housing is a new series by Mothership, diving into the topic of housing in Singapore with in-depth articles and videos.

We’ll explore the uniquely Singaporean housing system by experiencing it for ourselves, gathering expert opinions, and hearing the perspectives of young Singaporeans, to present the points of view that matter, firsthand.

Million-dollar HDBs, snowballing rents, and those stories about couples persistently losing at the BTO lottery. As some sectors move towards pre-pandemic levels of health, recovery for housing is still on the way.

As such, in spite of the reassurances by both incoming and outgoing leaders — that public housing is and will continue to be affordable, and any existing volatility now will be resolved with patience and time — concerns remain.

Therein lies the question: with the renewal in political leadership, is the HDB system also due for some change? Where do the 4G's priorities for housing lie, and what changes can we expect and prepare for?

To get an idea of what lies in our future, let's take a little trip back in time — back to the inception of the Housing Development Board (HDB), and its original vision.

HDB through the years

When the People's Action Party (PAP) government came into power, the late Lee Kuan Yew had a simple vision for housing in Singapore: house the masses.

A "home-owning society", as he put it, was the obvious solution. To that end, utilitarian estates were built, and the nation's slum- and squatter-dwelling population were promptly transplanted into these brand-new HDB flats. By the 1980s, 85 per cent of Singaporeans resided in public housing.

His successor, Goh Chok Tong, inherited a largely-housed Singapore. In 1995, he introduced "a new phase where the government increases your asset value through the Asset Enhancement Programme".

In other words, a HDB flat would be an attractive investment; a nest egg for retirement, as Goh's successor and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would analogise later.

Enter the 2000s. The younger Lee assumed office in a now-prospering Singapore. This time, his promise was different: a "first-class" living environment, even in HDBs — even in older HDBs.

"Where all the amenities are there, where the community feels at home," he elaborated in his 2006 National Day Rally speech. "Where if you are old or disabled, you can get around...there will be lifts on every floor and good amenities for all."

The Home Improvement Programme and the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme ensued, with new designs and functional upgrading.

In fact, PM Lee sometimes had to become a "housing agent", touting the "beautiful development" of new BTO projects during his 2013 National Day Rally speech

But he also had to deal with the looming challenge posed by the 99-year lease in old HDB flats.

In his 2018 National Day Rally speech, he addressed Singaporeans' concerns and explained the reason why HDB leases are for 99 years was to be " fair for future generations".

Nevertheless, he announced the government's plans of a new scheme — the Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS) — to address this issue.

The 4G vision

That's what housing looked like in the past and present. But what about the future?

We attempt to make an educated guess based on what's been said by various 4G leaders.

On several occasions in the past few months, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee has pledged to keep housing affordable and accessible, in line with HDB's goal — "to create a quality living environment for all".

In his May Day speech this year, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong similarly reassured Singaporeans that the prices of BTO flats have moved in tandem with incomes and continue to remain affordable.

He added:

"Affordable and accessible public housing – like access to first rate education and healthcare – will always be a key part of our social compact in Singapore."

What about asset appreciation?

Ensuring asset appreciation has seldom been emphasised by the government in recent times as compared to the 1990s, especially with flats getting older.

Wong, in his capacity as national development minister in 2017, even had to sound a warning that HDB flat prices would inevitably start to fall at some point, as their leases run down.

He wrote that "buyers need to do their due diligence and be realistic when buying flats with short leases", responding to the phenomenon of aging, short-lease HDB flats being sold at high prices.

Shortly after, the VERS was announced in 2018 by PM Lee — providing some comfort to residents in older HDB estates nearing the end of their lease.

PM Lee added then that the government will not start doing VERS for another two decades, as time is needed for the government to study how to afford VERS for the long term.

Regardless, with that, it looks like we've come more or less full circle.

Amidst inflation, war, and out-of-the-blue crises like Covid-19, the government now seems to be pushing a similar stance to what Lee Kuan Yew did in the 1960s: that Singaporeans today will always have a roof over their head, and most will be able to own that roof.

No matter what happens.

Continue with the status quo

That seems to be the answer that has been strongly suggested so far.

But the outlook for young Singaporeans looks less than optimistic.

As such, there has been several alternative housing solutions proposed in public conversation.

In a post-pandemic Singapore, some expressed hopes that the authorities could shift some of the market focus to long-term rent, for instance, or flat-sharing and co-living.

One forum letter in The Straits Times suggested that all HDB transactions should go through HDB, to protect flat prices from market influences and keep them affordable.

However, it seems that the response so far has been this: Stick to the core mission of housing the masses.

Prioritising home ownership

In October 2023, the Minister for National Development reiterated that home ownership continues to be "a key national priority".

It shows in policy. Evidence: the Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) scheme, to discourage the formation of "premium HDB areas that only the rich can afford". And the multiple rounds of property cooling measures (including, notably, a wait-out period for private-property downgraders) that aim to stabilise prices, encourage prudent buying, and prioritise first-timers.

Stricter rules against BTO non-selection to stave off fussiness and more support for first-time buyers — including more grants and an additional ballot — have also served to make flats more accessible for the general populace, especially young families.

As Wong put it, in his Budget 2023 speech:

"We will do more to support the housing aspirations of young Singaporeans."

All things considered, these policy changes seem to put the focus on — as the phrase goes — the "bread-and-butter issue" of getting people housed, instead of increasing the HDB's value as an investment property.

Whether by increasing subsidies and grants, building more flats, or even selling HDB flats below market prices and incurring record deficits, the authorities seem to be indicating to Singaporeans that the status quo largely works — and they will do what it takes to refine and improve the status quo.

Affordability, accessibility, inclusivity. All the way.

Challenges ahead

That said, the 4G team will have its own set of unique challenges to face. Perhaps not quite as dire as LKY-era impoverishment, but still.

For instance: with the rise in non-nuclear families and alternate life choices like singlehood and cohabitation, how will current HDB policies evolve?

"We’ve in fact been expanding housing options and grants for singles over the years. And we’re not taking a step backward in this regard," said Lee, responding to questions about the exclusion of singles from flats built under the new Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) model.

Lee also promised "adjustments and improvements along the way, bearing in mind the evolving demographics of Singapore and changing aspirations of Singaporeans."

But how will upcoming HDB projects balance the needs of increasingly diverse households?

Two-room flexi units are in high demand by downsizing seniors and singles (particularly the latter, as the only type of BTO unit they are eligible to purchase) — but to include more of such units, HDB would have to cut down on flats for larger families, which are already oversubscribed.

And there's the ever-present question of land use. With an increasingly tight supply of land, and Singaporeans increasingly concerned about nonutilitarian factors like greenery and ecological preservation, how will the MND strike a balance?

There are also other questions that remain unanswered. The exact details of VERS, for instance, have yet to be announced.

We know that residents will be able to vote on whether or not to sell their flats to the government before the lease runs out; but we don't know what the required majority will be, or what will happen to those who vote no.

We know the compensation will be less substantial than that under SERS; we don't know by how much, although Senior Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann has hinted that VERS shows the government's "generosity" — i.e., that homeowners can still get value from a depreciating asset.

And delving deeper into the question of affordability. In his May Day speech, Wong said that BTO prices have risen ten times since 1980 — but this is on par with the median household income, which has also risen ten times to S$9,000.

Then again, while many have experienced increases in personal incomes over the years, the rise of the dual-income household has played a large part in ensuring that BTO flats remain affordable for them.

So if BTO prices continue to rise (and they likely will), how do households keep up? Will more housing grants and subsidies be given?

Last but not least, there's the question of hope for the future. One or two generations ago, it was easy to see how things were getting better: from slum to flat, from property to nest egg. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, a sense that things were getting better.

As Goh put it, in 1995:

"In the 1960s and 1970s, we struggled to provide a roof for all Singaporeans. In the 1980s, Singaporeans were able to own their homes. Now, in the 1990s, we embark on a new phase where the Government increases your asset value through the Assets Enhancement Programme."

Young Singaporeans may find it difficult to retain the same optimism of progress. Perhaps some of it is strawberry generation entitlement, taking for granted the sprawling multi-storey HDB estates and manicured fields that previous generations worked to create.

But at the same time, I know that my dad bought our family a three-storey house on a single income, with charisma and hard work in lieu of any paper qualifications. My husband and I, on the other hand, work endless hours in hopes of paying off our flat, which in totality is just a touch larger than my childhood bedroom.

While the 4G leadership has not had the chance to fully articulate their vision for Singapore (including their vision for housing), it seems like they hope to retain the original spirit of the HDB in focusing on providing "affordable" homes for all.

But policies, rather than promises, might be better for the morale of young Singaporeans.

What might this look like, in practice? An objective standard of affordability pegged to income levels? A guarantee of a roof over the heads of those who satisfy certain criteria?

Perhaps, to sum up: a show-not-tell. A clear stance that we will be able to own a house, if we keep working and toughing it out. Just like our parents did.

Top photo via Tobi/Unsplash