Wait just one moment. Before you continue reading this blog I would like you to picture what “public housing” means to you. Don’t worry, I will wait.
Have you got that image in your head? Good.
If you are from the United States, like I am, I am willing to bet that your pre-conceived notions of government subsidized housing is pretty negative. A few buzz words come to mind: dilapidated, low-income, a LOT of criminal activity, poor upkeep; if it was an alphabet soup you would throw it away because the words kept insulting you. In Singapore this is not the case. Before I go deep into statistics, comparison or analysis I want to look at one phrase that is used synonymous with public housing in the United States and their public housing system: “housing projects.” When you say this word you really get the whole picture of what subsidized housing is like in the US, an unfinished product. Projects are rarely complete things, they are in the process of being finished. This colloquial name alone gives off a negative aspect to public housing and does not even allow the person thinking about it to give it a chance.
Let’s look at some basic statistics that I have taken from the Housing Development Board (Singapore) website and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (US). In Singapore 85% of the population lives in public housing, that is more than 4.5 million people in a city living in public housing. In America, as of 2007 about 1 million subsidized units were filled, for arguments sake lets say that most of these had 2-3 people living in them for about 2 million Americans, only .6% of the population.
I want to paint you a picture…. With photography. I am going to give you a virtual tour of a 4-room HDB flat that we went to.
If it looks like an Ikea catalog just vomited on your computer screen I would like to apologize for that. One thing that I would like to point out about this set is that in the picture of the floor plan it says “4-Room Showflat,” and yes, you can count, I did post 6 separate pictures of rooms (there was another bathroom as well). This is nothing like what I am used to when “public housing” comes to mind.
Singapore approaches public housing a little differently than in the good ol’ USA. One of the primary narratives that they try to convey is that you can own and sell your HDB Flat. This gives incentive for the home owners to take care of the property so they can potentially get some money in return if they choose to sell it. In the US housing projects are almost considered a trap. Once you are there it is almost impossible to get out, you are stuck and there is very little room for upward mobility. It is to no fault of the owner in the US, they are given no incentive to do so.
Singapore and the HDB are changing what public housing means to people who are not used to this method. It will no longer be synonymous with negative adjectives but reflective on the government that subsidizes them. Regardless of the small population more can be done in the United States to improve the state of public housing.