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Public housing in Singapore is managed by the Housing and Development Board. The majority of the residential housing developments in Singapore are publicly governed and developed. About 85% of Singaporeans live in such houses. These flats are located in housing estates, which are self-contained satellite towns with schools, supermarkets, clinics, hawker centres, and sports and recreational facilities. There are a large variety of flat types and layouts which cater to various housing budgets. HDB flats were built primarily to provide affordable housing for the masses and their purchase can be financially aided by the Central Provident Fund. Due to changing demands, there were more up-market public housing developments in recent years.

Public housing in Singapore is generally not considered as a sign of poverty or lower standards of living, as compared to public housing in other countries. Although they are cheaper than privately built homes in Singapore, they are also built in a variety of quality and finishes to cater to middle and upper middle income groups. Property prices for the smallest public housing can often be higher than privately owned and developed standalone properties (Townhouse, apartment unit etc.) in other developed countries after currency conversion. Even though the majority of residents live in public housing, very few are below the poverty line.

Since the founding of modern Singapore, housing in the fledging colony has been concentrated in the city centre, where the early town plans has stipulated ethnic-based districts built on both sides of the Singapore River. Housing in the city was primarily in the form of shophouses where multiple families would live in confined spaces. Housing in the suburban areas were often in the form of either traditional Malay (and occasionally Chinese) villages (Kampongs) or large estates and mansions owned by the Europeans or richer locals.

By the 1920s, the chronic housing conditions in downtown Singapore prompted the British colonial government to establish the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1927 to build affordable public housing for the common population of Singapore. The first forms of mass-built public housing thus appeared in Singapore. Still, the SIT managed to build only 23,000 housing units in its 32 years of existence, and was unable to resolve the worsening housing shortage problem.

Low construction rates and massive damage from World War II further exacerbated the housing shortage. In 1947, the British Housing Committee Report noted Singapore had “one of the world’s worst slums — ‘a disgrace to a civilised community'” and the average person per building density was 18.2 by 1947 and high-rise buildings were rare. In 1959, the problem of shortage still remained a serious problem. An HDB paper estimated that in 1966, 300,000 people lived in squatter settlements in the suburbs and 250,000 lived in squalid shophouses in the Central Area.[1] In its election campaign in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) recognized that housing require urgent attention and pledged that it would provide low-cost housing for the poor if it was selected; when it won the elections and formed the newly elected government, it took immediate action to solve the housing shortage. The SIT was dissolved.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established in February 1960 to develop public housing and improve the quality of living environment for its residents. Led by Lim Kim San, its first priority during formation was to build as many low-cost housing units as possible, and the Five-Year Building Programme(from 1960 to 1965) was introduced. The housing that was initially built was mostly meant for rental by the low income group. In 1964, the Home Ownership Scheme was also introduced to help citizens to buy instead of renting their flats. Four years later, the government decided to allow people to use their Central Provident Fund savings as downpayment. However, these efforts were not successful enough then in convincing the people living in the squatter settlements to move into these flats. It was only after the Bukit Ho Swee fire on 25 May 1961, that HDB’s efficiency and earnestness won the people over.

The HDB estimated that from 1959 to 1969, an average of 147000 housing units—80,000 from the current deficit, 20000 due to the redevelopment of the Central Area, and 47000 due to population increase—would need to be constructed; an average of about 14000 a year. However, the private sector only had the ability to provide 2500 per year, and at price levels out of reach of the low-income.[1] The HDB set out to resolve the deficit. Between 1960 and 1965, the HDB built 54,430 housing units. Due to land constraints, high-rise and high-density flats were chosen. By 1965, HDB was able to overcome the worst of the housing shortage by providing low-cost housing to the lower-income group within the planned period of five years.

Several reasons contributed to the success of the HDB. Firstly, the HDB received very strong support from the government, which allocated a large amount of funds to public housing. The HDB was also equipped with legal powers such as the power to resettle squatters. The hard work and dedication of Lim Kim San, the first chairman of the HDB, and other members of the board, also contributed to its success.

From 1974 to 1982, the Housing and Development Board built and marketed middle-income apartments, an activity which became a function of the board after 1982. The trend of building increasingly up-market homes has continued ever since, and in 1999, the HDB started building executive condominiums, public housing aimed at Singaporeans who do not want a HDB flat but might find private property too expensive. The idea to construct such housing was first mooted in 1995 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who wanted to provide public housing that was more up-market than the executive flats.[2]

Physical organisation and design

Towns and estates

Overview of Bukit Batok, an example of large-scale new towns built from the ground up by the HDB.

Woodlands New Town built just beside the Causeway to Johor Bahru.

Main articles: New towns of Singapore and Public housing precincts in Singapore

The first public housing built were in SIT Estates, usually located just outside the fringe of Downtown Singapore, such as Tiong Bahru in the Bukit Merah area. SIT estates also appeared in Queenstown such as the Princess Margaret Estate where construction began in July 1952. In SIT’s early plans for the Estate, the new town planning concept was evident with their plans to build housing estates around a commercial centre.[3]

When the HDB took over in 1960, they fully adopted the new town planning concept on a large scale, building entire towns from scratch in locations all around Singapore. Queenstown thus became the HDB’s model of its version of a New Town, and they developed this further in Toa Payoh which was the first town to be built entirely from the ground up by the HDB. Initially, smaller developments, sometimes known as Estates, were built in areas in the city centre, Changi Village, Lim Chu Kang, Farrer Park and Seletar, and in larger areas such as in Bukit Timah and Marine Parade, but these has since been halted in favour of concentrating public housing developments only in major HDB towns. Over the years, the HDB began to reorganise the smaller estates and amalgamate them into “HDB Towns”, as has been done in Bukit Merah, Geylang and Kallang/Whampoa, while Bukit Timah and Marine Parade remained as Estates. Simei, sometimes referred to as an Estate and a New Town, has since been amalgamated into Tampines. There are now officially 23 “HDB Towns” and three “Other Estates”.

While most towns are compact and are contiguous, some towns, especially those incorporating existing developments and the reorganised estates may appear scattered. Two of the best examples of discontinuous new towns built over existing developments include Bishan and Serangoon. Hougang also has significant areas of non-public housing use. The reorganised “new towns” of Bukit Merah, Geylang and Kallang/Whampoa are similarly fractured in some places. On the other end of the scale, Jurong East, Jurong West, Tampines, Toa Payoh and Yishun have very little private housing and no landed properties, while towns like Ang Mo Kio, Choa Chu Kang, Clementi, and Woodlands have only small pockets of landed properties.

When Punggol New Town is saturated, HDB can build flats at Tengah (consisting of big area Brickland Road, Bukit Batok Road, Jurong Road, PIE and Old Choa Chu Kang Road), Simpang (consisting of big military land), Bukit Brown (consisting of Bukit Brown Cemetery), Tebing (consisting of KPE, TPE, Sungei Serangoon and Buangkok East Drive), Bidadari (consisting of Bidadari Cemetery) and Seletar New Towns (consisting of housing area, of Seletar Aerospace Park); while it can expand Tampines, Pasir Ris and Choa Chu Kang when every other expanding places is saturated. After the Tengah, Simpang, Bukit Brown and Seletar New Towns, HDB will also choose to build flats in the Western Water Catchment (consisting of Tengeh, Poyan, Murai and Sarimbun Reservoirs), Mandai and Seletar West. Pulau Tekong which is originally in Concept Plan 2001, will no longer be a new town and will still be dedicated for military use.

Based on the new town concept, each HDB town is designed to be self-sustainable. Helmed by a hierarchy of commercial developments, ranging from a town centre to precinct-level outlets, there is no need to venture out of town to meet the most common needs of residences. Employment can be found in industrial estates located within several towns. Educational, health care, and recreational needs are also taken care of with the provision of schools, hospitals, parks, sports complexes, and so on.

HDB towns are typically sub-divided into neighbourhoods, with most neighbourhoods served by a neighbourhood commercial centre. Depending on the size of the town, there can be as many as nine neighbourhoods, to as little as two. Except for the older towns, estates and consolidated towns, most towns use the first digit of their block numbers to indicate the neighbourhood in which the block is located in.

Each neighbourhood is in turn composed of multiple precincts, which are built on the concept of promoting communal exchanges and which are more secure. While older precincts may merely involve dividing rows of identical blocks in relatively close proximity without any other real interaction with each other, newer precincts are designed to physically envelop a common space, or centred around some kind of communal facility such as a multi-storey carpark. While precinct boundaries may be difficult to physically distinguish in older precincts, they are usually obvious in newer precincts through the physical layout of the block and their unique architectural design. Newer precincts (and upgraded older precincts) also often adopt fanciful names reminiscent of private developments to lend an air of class and belonging, although these names are often not used in reality since they are sometimes not displayed and are not part of official addresses.

Precints

Public housing precincts in Singapore are clusters of public housing blocks arranged as a single unit. Comprising an average of 10 blocks per precinct, they are collectively grouped into up to nine neighbourhoods per new town.

History

The Housing and Development Board, the sole public housing planner, designer and builder in the city-state, adopted the precinct concept in 1978, based on its understanding that social interaction and community bonding can be optimised in a smaller planning unit compared to a full neighbourhood. In addition, precincts are expected to evoke a stronger sense of security, although they are not physically fenced, and do not restrict movements for residents or outsiders in any physical way.

Tampines New Town thus became the first new town to be planned according to this model in 1980. This concept persisted in subsequent application of the model in other towns through to the present, although some modifications are noted, particularly in terms of precinct size and physical configuration. The increased usage of multi-storey carparks also allow flexibility in the provision of open spaces for each precinct, and the configuration of blocks to separate human and vehicular traffic.

While older new towns were not built according to the precinct concept, they were, nonetheless, often planned and built in batches otherwise similar to precincts. Major town redevelopment and upgrading plans such as the Main Upgrading Programme and the Interim Upgrading Programme in older estates such as in Queenstown[1] Toa Payoh, and Bukit Merah from the 1990s has involved the enhancement of the precinct concept, including the physical upgrading to collective groups of blocks, re-configuration of public spaces around them, and often includes the christening of names to these estates. In other cases, old groups of blocks are completely demolished and rebuilt under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme, accelerating the evolution of these towns towards the precinct concept.

Block design

Neighbours in an HDB block usually share a common corridor

Multi-storey carparks can be found at newer HDB estates in Singapore

Each public housing block is considered a vertical community, with common area built into the design to promote social interaction. Void decks, a term unique to Singapore, refers to the first level which are often left devoid of housing units, hence the word “void”. These open, sheltered spaces are intentionally left empty to provide convenient spaces for communal activities such as weddings, funerals, parties, bazaars and even as polling stations. Selected blocks would feature a single stand-alone shop, often referred to as “Mamashops” to provide convenient doorstep service. Other common permanent facilities built in void decks may include Residential Committee facilities and offices, kindergartens, medical centres, Neighbourhood Police Posts, fire posts and so on.

Also common especially in older flats are the common corridors, some of which may run across the length of slab blocks. Considered public property, they have rules preventing home owners from occupying and restricting movement, with the exception of units at far ends of corridors who may purchase and incorporate parts of the corridor into their units from the HDB. While these corridors are welcome for being the default interaction areas for neighbours and their children, and the added sense of security due to their open-nature, issues of privacy can crop up, resulting in more contemporary blocks featuring far less units per corridor. Larger units such as 5-room flats are also commonly housed in “Point blocks”, which feature only four units per floor.

Early HDB blocks tend to be of a single standard slab design of uniform height, typically averaging 12 storeys and arranged equidistant from each other. Blocks of varied heights were subsequently introduced to reduce the uniformity and to cater to differing tastes, such as the 4-storey block and the 25-storey point-block. Occasionally, a single block of highly unique design would be built to serve as landmarks, such as the 14-storey Forfar House (or Block 39) in Queenstown which was the tallest residential building in Singapore upon its completion in 1956, Block 53 in Toa Payoh which had a unique 3-sided design, and Block 259 in Ang Mo Kio with an unusual circular clover-leaf-like design. The slanting roofs of several blocks in Potong Pasir were considered revolutionary and became instant landmarks for the estate till this day. Today, HDB blocks tend to amalgamate the point and slab block designs, featuring taller blocks but with slightly more units of about 6-8 units per floor.

The façades of public housing blocks has also evolved over time. While the SIT blocks occasionally featured Art Deco designs, the first HDB blocks were typically brutalist. After the initial rush to mass-build flats in the 1960s however, varying façades began to appear in subsequent decades, initially only through subtle variations such as coloured tiles, but which became full-scaled multi-coloured paintwork complete with bright motifs from the 1990s. After several elaborate designs, some of which subsequently presented logistical headaches during maintenance, more subdued and contemporary designs began to emerge from the 2000s.

For hanging out clothes, residents use bamboo sticks and hang them out of the window clipped onto the poles. For blocks built in the late 1990s to mid 2000s, HDB made bamboo pole holders so that hanging clothes out would be safer. For blocks built in the mid 2000s to present, HDB issued all flats with items that residents can clip their clothes on without bamboo poles.

Flat types

There are several types of public and semi-public housing available, classified on the basis of the number of rooms and size of the flat. Size is usually denoted by the terms such as four-room, five-room or similar, and is based on the number of bedrooms inclusive of the living room but newer five-room apartments come with only three bedrooms and a dining room.

A three-room flat has two bedrooms in about 70 m2 (750 sq ft). A four-room flat has three bedrooms with about 90 m2 (970 sq ft) of space. A five-room is about 110 m2 (1,200 sq ft). Some have an extra room that is used as a study; others have a dining area. An executive apartment has three bedrooms and separate dining and living rooms, with 150 m2 (1,600 sq ft) of space. The largest HDB flats (in terms of floor area) ever built are two-storey Executive Masionettes built in the 1990s which can have a floor area ranging from 160 – 190 m², but which are no longer constructed.

Semi-public housing like executive maisonette is governed under HUDC last time instead of HDB and have a much larger floor area. Some newer HDB developed flats in new towns include condominium-like finishes.

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