Singapore Makes Housing Work. Can We Do The Same?
The success of Singapore’s public housing holds lessons for Hawaii — and solutions.
Singapore is an island less than half the size of Oahu with over five million people.
Approximately 82% of its population lives in abundant, inexpensive, well-maintained public housing. The government builds enough public housing for every Singaporean who wants it. And because most of Singapore’s public housing is sold, not rented, the homeownership rate is over 90%.
Singapore’s housing policies are innovative and implemented efficiently, but they are not magic spells unique to that country. The success of Singapore’s public housing holds lessons for Hawaii and solutions to our own severe shortage of housing.
In Singapore, most people live in homes that have a 99-year lease they’ve bought from the government. Singapore’s public housing agency, the Housing and Development Board, has built over one million homes since the early 1960s, and year after year it builds enough housing to meet demand.
These homes are clean, attractive and frequently upgraded by the government. They appreciate in value. A unit in the Pinnacle@Duxton housing project, for example, originally sold for US$317,000 in 2004 and recently resold for US$906,000.
The Pinnacle@Duxton, seen here, is one of many government-built public housing projects in Singapore. Pinnacle@Duxton has seven towers, each fifty stories high, making them the world’s tallest public residential buildings. The complex contains 1,848 apartments.
The average Singaporean buys their units with their savings in the Central Provident Fund. The CPF withholds 37% of the income of all working Singaporeans into three government accounts: retirement, health care and housing (somewhat like Social Security and Medicare in the United States).
By the time most Singaporeans reach marriage age, they have saved enough in their housing accounts for a down payment. For over 90% of Singaporeans, the CPF payment is also enough to cover their mortgage.
I began researching the Singapore model in 2018, having dealt with housing issues since 2011 first as a member of the Honolulu City Council and then as chair of the state Senate Housing Committee.
In the 2019 and 2020 sessions of the Legislature, I proposed a plan for Hawaii: ALOHA (Affordable, Locally Owned Homes for All) Homes. I will propose it again this session.
It is an entirely new housing model, inspired by Singapore, to end the severe, decades-long housing shortage in Hawaii in a manner consistent with Hawaii’s unique needs and values.
Over the years, I’ve heard many critiques of traditional, developer-built housing towers or subdivisions in Hawaii.
Some constituents object to the large profits made by developers. Some feel that condo buyers whose units appreciate greatly are receiving unfair windfalls. Some are frustrated by wealthy investors who don’t live here, or by vacation rental operators, or by second-home buyers who are rarely here.
Some argue that all new housing should go to local people. Some object to new taxes for housing subsidies. Some object to paving over agricultural, conservation or otherwise undeveloped land. Some don’t want to further develop existing neighborhoods. Some object to building high-density towers that differ drastically from today’s mostly suburban, single-family houses.
Despite these objections, and despite the real pain expressed by community members in dozens of hearings I’ve participated in, most of the housing projects now in the pipeline are still based on the for-profit development of homes that are too expensive for the majority of local families.
And the housing shortage continues to get worse. In September 2020, the median price of Oahu single-family homes hit a record high of $880,000, even as Hawaii has recorded the highest unemployment rate in generations.
As the cliche goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Whether or not the critiques I’ve repeated above are factual, reasonable or should be outweighed by other considerations, they are widespread in our community.
And yet a recent state study found that Hawaii needs 65,000 housing units by 2025.
Building that much new housing under traditional development models, ignoring the community’s vigorously stated concerns, is not politically realistic.
ALOHA Homes seeks to break the cycle by addressing every one of these community concerns through a housing production system based on the Singapore model. It may be radical and unprecedented, but I believe that only a program on this scale can begin to solve the problem.
In a nutshell, the ALOHA Homes program would build hundreds of thousands of units of public housing on state-owned lands near rail stations and sell them to local people. Let’s examine each of the points individually:
A recent Pacific Resource Partnership survey found a majority of Hawaii residents consider $1,500 per month an affordable rent or mortgage payment for a two-bedroom home. With a three percent down payment under existing federal programs for first-time homebuyers, a monthly payment of $1,506 can buy a $300,000 home.
That would be the starting price for an ALOHA Home. According to HHFDC statistics, that would be affordable to a family of four making less than 50% of the area median income. This is one of the lowest prices for new, for-sale housing ever proposed in Hawaii.
Is $300,000 a realistic price? Rider Levitt Bucknall, a global construction management firm, estimates the price of multifamily residential construction in Honolulu in the first quarter of 2020 to be $205 to $455 per square foot.
Even at the high end of $455 per square foot, $300,000 would be enough to build 659 square feet, which is big enough for a two-bedroom unit. And building thousands of units at a time will result in savings through economies of scale.
This program is entirely revenue neutral. There would be no taxpayer subsidy for these units. Buyers would get what they pay for and pay for what they get.
ALOHA Homes would be sold only to 1) Hawaii residents 2) who would be owner-occupants and 3) who own no other real property. With modern fingerprint or retina-scanning technology, the state can strictly enforce owner-occupancy in two crucial ways: the owner’s fingerprint would have to be on the doorknob a minimum number of days each year; and, if that owner were to illegally rent the unit, the new fingerprint would not be in the database.
Would outsiders move to Hawaii for this new housing? Unlikely. While a requirement for buyers to have lived in Hawaii for a minimum number of years is probably unconstitutional, the development of these units would take several years. Even if the bill passed tomorrow, and potential buyers could sign up right away, it would take years to actually plan, design, permit and build the units.
Some people might be willing to move here and rent a place for several years while they wait, but probably not many. And if they have lived here for several years, then they will have become part of our Hawaii community, so they would no longer be outsiders.
Unlike fee-simple ownership, which is ownership in perpetuity, ALOHA Homes would be leased for a term of 99 years. As happens now in Singapore, units would revert to the state at the end of that time.
This policy is important for two key reasons. First, it ensures that the state has some level of control over the property and can redevelop it to better suit the needs of the future. Second, many in the Native Hawaiian community are opposed to selling lands that once belonged to the Kingdom, and the Legislature has made the sale of the fee interest in state land very difficult.
A sample apartment on display at the HDB. Singaporeans buy apartments from the government for a term of 99 years; approximately 82% of the country’s population lives in public housing.
Ninety-nine years gives the security of knowing that you’ll never outlive the lease. And as long as the state continues to produce enough supply to meet demand, your children and grandchildren will be able to buy their own 99-year terms.
Under the ALOHA Homes proposal, leases can be sold and resold on the secondary market, inherited, mortgaged and transferred just like any other real property. The new buyer would buy the remaining lease term and getting a standard 30-year mortgage would be no problem as long as there were at least 35 years left on the term.
To prevent profiteering and speculation, the state would receive 75 % of all the profit in every secondary market transaction, not just the first resale. These monies would be used for building upkeep, which will keep maintenance fees low and prevent buildings from deteriorating due to inadequate legislative appropriations. With every new buyer, residents will benefit from better maintenance.
ALOHA Homes will be sized for families, with common amenities like swimming pools and BBQ areas. Schools, libraries, health care centers and other public facilities enabled by the scale of the projects will be within walking distance.
This type of planning accommodates people at every stage of life. In Singapore, we toured preschool spaces that had been converted to senior centers as the residents aged from young families to retirees. These walkable, car-free communities are actually a return to the way cities were built before the advent of the automobile. Think of Paris, Tokyo or even downtown Honolulu.
Residents of ALOHA Homes won’t have to take a car to the grocery store, the post office, the dry cleaner, the bank, the pharmacy or the doctor and dentist. They’ll be able to take an elevator. Dropping off the kids at preschool or daycare will be a short walk on the way to the rail station.
Picture the 98-acre Aloha Stadium parcel, currently undergoing redevelopment. Under the ALOHA Homes model, those 98 acres could have 200 towers, each 50 stories tall, with 10 apartments on each story.
Such a model would create 100,000 total units of housing.
That might sound shocking. But precisely because of the high density, it would be possible to locate every necessity within walking distance. There would be virtually no parking and no cars in the entire complex, ensuring that existing Central and West Oahu residents would not have to suffer new traffic from tens of thousands of families.
Yes, it would mean a massive impact. But one parcel could contain enough housing to meet nearly 20 years’ worth of demand, and every other neighborhood in the state would be relieved of development pressures. With just a handful of other sizable state-owned parcels adjacent to rail stations, a century or more of statewide population growth could be accommodated.
Tengah, the HDB’s next major housing project, is designed to have five districts, including a car-free town center (a depiction of which is seen here). Tengah’s slogan is At Home With Nature; Tengah is designed, says the HDB, to be Singapore’s first smart and sustainable town, with green features and smart technologies.
ALOHA Homes would be available to all Hawaii residents, regardless of income. Public services should be for the public. Public schools, public parks and public highways are available to all, regardless of income. In America, we have a Constitution based on equality. If a billionaire wants to dispose of their real property and move in to a public housing tower next to a formerly homeless family, we should celebrate that.
When we say “public housing” in this country, we think of two components: a subsidized price and a low-income resident. But that model has been a failure. Income restrictions were a disaster in the old-fashioned public housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s.
The “projects” still have a bad name to this day, yet virtually all publicly subsidized housing in the country still have income restrictions. ALOHA Homes would break that cycle and achieve income mixing — just as our public schools do — by allowing people of all incomes to buy.
For those concerned about the ability of the wealthy to access housing before those who really need it, the simple answer is that we’d build enough to meet demand. Everyone who actually wanted to live in one of these condos could do so.
On one of the roof decks on the 50th floor at the Pinnacle@Duxton. All seven towers in the complex are connected by sky bridges — the world’s longest — at the 26th and 50th floors.
I believe that large-scale new housing construction is critical to the future of our community.
Even if we block all migration from the mainland, the COFA nations and abroad, we still fall short of accommodating our natural population growth. Every year there are about 8,000 more local births than local deaths. Even if we make the unrealistic assumption that all 8,000 will marry each other and stay married, we still need 4,000 new housing units. We build closer to 2,000 new homes every year in Hawaii.
If we allow the chronic undersupply to continue, then we should be honest with our young people and tell them: “You have to leave, and you cannot come back.” I, for one, am not okay with this forced exodus.
Hawaii has lost population for four straight years, and the trend is accelerating. It is our moral obligation to embark on this proposal, or one like it, as soon as possible.