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Over 80% of Singapore’s resident population live in public housing built by the government over the last 50 years, with about 80% of these resident households owning their own homes.

India has more than a million homeless people living in slums, public shelters, streets etc. and home ownership is still a dream for more than 80% of the population.

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Singapore is smaller than Chennai city. India, despite its huge land mass, has failed to shelter its population. Its useful to remember Singapore was not a rich nation in its early days, with a GDP per capita of around US$500 in 1965, when it started its public housing projects. Its current GDP is around $56,000 and India is at $1,500.

In 2015, PM Modi announced a ‘Housing For All by 2022’ mission, with a plan to construct over 20 million homes across 300+ towns & cities. A slew of announcements on plans, policies, & subsidies have followed. Private sector participation is being promoted. However, beyond being a grand attractive vision, its not clear how well it will be executed. If these 20 million homes turn out to be like the poor quality housing board apartments Indians had to put up with so far, thats no progress.

Singapore provides affordable & quality public housing. The quality of public housing has progressively improved, with the private sector real estate companies striving harder to differentiate their projects to justify their premium pricing. Singapore’s public housing body not only builds houses, but promotes vibrant towns & communities. It incorporates commercial, recreational, & social amenities in all its projects. It provides community spaces for residents to mingle & interact.

How did Singapore do it?

  1. Leasing vs buying. Land-constrained Singapore opted for leasing. Buyers of public housing are on a 99-year lease contract with the government. They can do home improvements, sell or rent their houses. But they are obliged to return the house to the government on expiry of the lease, the occasion for which has not risen so far as the country is just 50 years old. As the country grows & the property appreciates, the government may buy back old apartment blocks for re-development, and offer new apartments to the residents with fresh 99-year leases. Rising land costs in urban India make housing unaffordable to the masses. Can India follow the Singapore leasing model to make public housing more affordable?
  2. Curbing speculation. Singapore subsidizes housing costs for first-time home buyers. But, owning multiple properties are discouraged, through taxes and duties. India should discourage real estate speculators. This is key to avoid runaway real estate prices. Owning more than 2 homes should be discouraged through taxes & duties, or even banned for a while.
  3. Government-led execution. Singapore’s public housing vision & execution was led by its senior most leaders, starting with its founding PM Lee Kuan Yew. Public housing is a critical basic need which cannot be left to private profit-making interests. While private sector participation may be required to support the massive scale of public housing projects required in India, the government should retain control over the vision, execution & supervision. To achieve this, India needs strong political leaders at all levels (central, state & community) committed to the ‘Housing For All’ mission, talented bureaucrats to execute policies, skilled architects, projects managers, engineers etc. It needs to attract top talent to various departments like public housing & town planning.
  4. Affordability. How will India define & ensure affordability of public housing? Singapore government claims a family earning around $800 per month can afford a 2-room public housing flat, supported by various housing grants. Average monthly wage is around $3,600 in Singapore, and around $230 in India.
  5. Quality. Would Indian politicians, bureaucrats and builders be willing to live in the public housing they promote & build? Perhaps they should be mandated to live in public housing for a while. ‘Skin in the game’ will ensure quality & responsibility.

PM Modi’s ‘housing’ mission sounds good. But execution is key.

 

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