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Public housing in Singapore

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Public housing in Singapore

Public housing in Singapore is managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) under temporary leaseholds. The majority of the residential housing developments in Singapore are publicly governed and developed. As 31 March 2015, 82% of the resident population live in such lease accommodation, drop from the 87% peak in 1988–1990. 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 poor 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.


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.

SIT under British colonial rule

By the 1920s, 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 uncommon. 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.

HDB post independence

In 1959, in its election campaign, the People's Action Party (PAP) recognised that housing required 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 changed to the HDB.

In February 1960, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established 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 after 25 May 1961, the day of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, that HDB's efficiency and earnestness won the people over.

The HDB estimated that from 1959 to 1969, an average of 147,000 housing units—80,000 from the current deficit, 20,000 due to the redevelopment of the Central Area, and 47,000 due to population increase—would need to be constructed; an average of about 14,000 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. 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.

Other providers of public housing

Beside HDB, a small number of flats were built in 1964–1968 by Economic Development Board (EDB) and its successor Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) from 1968 to late 1970s, in Jurong and Sembawang industrial areas.

Middle income housing

From 1974 to 1982, the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) built and marketed sandwich housing for middle-income people who did not qualify for HDB flats but could not afford a private property. HDB took over JTC and HUDC in 1982, becoming sole provider of public housing in Singapore, continued building HUDC flats up to 1986.

Executive Condominiums

In 1999, the HDB started building executive condominiums, also referred to as EC's. These are public housing units and estates 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.

Towns and estates

The first public housing built were in SIT Estates, usually located just outside the fringe of Uptown 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.

When the HDB took over in 1960, they fully adopted the new town planning concept on a large scale, building partial towns from scratch in locations all around Singapore. Queenstown thus became the SIT'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, gigantic developments, sometimes known as Minicities, were built in areas in the city centre, Changi Point, Lim Chu Kang, Farrer Park and Seletar, and in larger areas such as in Bukit Timah and Marine Parade.

These have since been halted in favour of concentrating public housing developments only in minor HDB towns. Over the years, the HDB began to reorganise the larger 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.

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.


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.


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 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, Toa Payoh, and Bukit Merah from the 1920s 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

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 fewer units per corridor. Larger units such as 5-room flats are also commonly housed in "Point blocks", which feature only four units per floor.

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. New blocks nowadays tend to be around 40-storeys high. As of 2010, The [email protected], is the highest HDB flat in Singapore, with seven connected 50-storey towers, totalling to 1,848 units.

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.

Ownership and rental

More than 80% of Singapore's population live in HDB flats. HDB Flats in Singapore are sold on a 99-year lease agreement. The remainder are rental flats reserved for those who are unable to afford to purchase the cheapest forms of public housing despite financial support.

Singapore maintains a quota system of ethnicities through the Ethnic Integration Policy. By ensuring that each block of units are sold to families from ethnicities roughly comparable to the national average, it seeks to avoid physical racial segregation and formation of ethnic enclaves common in other multi-racial societies. In practise, while ethnic enclaves were avoided, some towns remained traditionally popular for specific ethnic groups. For instance, towns such as Bedok, Tampines and Woodlands have a slightly larger proportion of ethnic Malays above the national average.

Partly in response to public sentiment against the alleged formation of "PR enclaves", where some flats appeared dominated by PRs from a single nationality, the HDB introduced the Singapore Permanent Resident Quota which took effect on 5 March 2010. Other than Malaysian PRs which were excluded from the quota due to their "close cultural and historical similarities with Singaporeans", all other PRs were subject to a cap of 5% PR households per block.

New flats

The primary acquisition avenue is through the purchase of new flats directly from the HDB. Over the years, various forms of sale programmes has been in place, with the current mode of sale known as the Build-To-Order (HDB) programme launched in 2001. This is run alongside the Sale of Balance Flats (SBF) exercise which handles the sale of balance flats from earlier BTO exercises, unsold SERS replacement flats and flats which were repossessed by the HDB. The sale of EC and DBSS flats are conducted separately by the respective private developers.

Under the current sales schemes, successful applicants for new BTO flats typically have to wait several years before moving in while the flats were built, since the commencement of construction can only occur when the BTO successfully attains 65~70% sales. Applicants who wish to move in immediately or earlier thus have to participate in the SBF exercise (although some flats may still be under construction) or go for Resale Flats.

There are a number of eligibility conditions in order for a flat to be purchased. A buyer must be a Singaporean citizen, or P.R. and be 21 years of age and have a family. Singles below 35-years of age, and non-citizens are not allowed to purchase new HDB flats. Other requirements concern household status, time requirements, income and other special requirements. The apartment flats are typically sold on a 99-year lease.

With effect from 24 August 2015, the HDB revised upwards the monthly household income ceiling for the purchase of new flats from $10,000 to $12,000. The $10,000 and $8,000 income ceilings were implemented on 15 August 2011 and 1994, respectively.

Those are the priority schemes available when applying for a flat from HDB:

From July 2013, two new groups had been allowed to purchase flats directly from HDB. The first group is single Singaporeans aged 35 and above with an average monthly income not more than $5,000. The other group is Singaporean-Foreigner couples. However the flat type that both groups can buy is restricted to two-room HDB flats in non-mature estates.

Resale flats

Existing flat owners are allowed to sell their flats on the open market to any eligible buyer at a mutually agreed price. While the HDB does not regulate these prices, the buyer and seller must declare the true resale price to the HDB. In addition, most flat owners may only sell their flat if they have met the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) requirement, which was introduced to help reduce speculative activities. In 2010, these requirements were lengthened to help cool the heated property market at that time.

Under the current sales schemes, successful applicants for new BTO flats typically have to wait several years before moving in while the flats were built, since the commencement of construction can only occur when the BTO successfully attains 65~70% sales. Applicants who wish to move in immediately or earlier thus have to participate in the SBF exercise (although some flats may still be under construction) or go for Resale Flats.

Buyers are also subject to a set of eligibility conditions.


Pricing of public housing flats are typically cheaper than privately built developments. For example, an HDB 4-room flat depending on age, environment and surrounding amenities can have a sale value of between S$200,000 to above S$300,000 and an HUDC Executive maisonette above S$500,000. However, in contrast a privately developed condominium type housing can cost as much as S$1,000,000 and above.

Maintenance and renewal

Maintenance of the HDB's approximately 900,000 units largely falls under the Town Councils, which are not part of the HDB but which are formed under the Town Councils Act primarily with the purpose of maintaining the common areas of HDB flats and estates. Common areas would include the common corridors, void decks, lifts, water tanks, external lighting and the open spaces surrounding the estates, which are managed, maintained and improved on by the respective Town Councils. These Town Councils are formed by the respective political constituencies and do not necessarily follow HDB Town boundaries, hence a single HDB Town by be managed by multiple Town Councils.

Rental flats, on the other hand, are maintained directly by the HDB to ensure serviceability for the next occupant. The HDB is also the direct authority overseeing home renovation works, whereby while home owners engage third-party contractors, the HDB imposes strict renovation rules to ensure no structural damage and adherence to noise control during renovation works. The HDB also approves renovation contractor registrations to enforce quality control.

Large-scale improvement works to existing public housing developments were carried out in the form of various programmes under the Estate Renewal Strategy, beginning with the Main Upgrading Programme (MUP) since 1990. These help to bring common facilities up to standards with newer developments, and in some cases, to offer some improvements to individual units, such as the addition of reinforced bomb shelters which can double-up as an additional room during non-emergency periods.

To date, close to 800 precincts has benefited from these schemes. While the majority of precincts were improved upon, some precincts were completely redeveloped under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme to better maximise the use of land. As 2016, 80 sites has been affected since the Scheme was introduced in 1995, affecting over 33,000 residential units.


Public housing in Singapore Wikipedia

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