Monday, 31 August 2015

Housing the elephant in the room

I had a look at the various manifestos with a focus on housing. There were some interesting ideas on how to make HDB flats affordable.

SDA and SDP separately proposed schemes where flats were sold cheap, repaid in under 20 years and can be sold back to HDB. WP proposed a scheme which pegs debt service ratio to the median household income. Generally it was agreed that it is wrong to factor in the cost of land when pricing new HDB flats.

No party has mentioned the elephant in the room. We do not “own” HDB flats. We rent them on a 99-year lease. Eventually the flats are returned to the HDB, with or without a profit. A bit like the biblical Jubilee, when land is returned to its original owner.

Just for the sake of argument: what would happen if we all withdrew our applications to buy a flat from HDB? What if we simply decided to rent instead of buy?

It is difficult to try to resolve an ostensibly “housing” issue when there are two distinct and opposing conditions to the problem.

Group A consists of (poorer, younger) people who just want to have the certainty of a home to start and build a family or to grow old in. Renting leaves one susceptible to rent rises which might become unaffordable. The only way to gain such security seems to be to acquire an un/affordable HDB flat.

Group B is made up of wily individuals who had bought a flat with as little money as possible and hope to sell it at the biggest profit possible after a shortest period of time.

Group A wants to have low prices in order to buy. Group B wants the prices to rise in order to make a profit. How do you please both these groups?

If the government were to legislate such that property prices come down substantially to help Group A, Group B would feel hard done by. By letting market forces drive up prices to benefit Group B, Group A becomes even more disgruntled.

To complicate matters, members of Group A eventually become part of Group B. The composition of the groups are constantly in flux.

How did HDB and "affordable housing" get into such a conundrum?

Let us go back to first principles. Affordable housing meant moving us from the danger of living in slums after the fire at Bukit Ho Swee and to resolve overcrowding. The government's right to compulsory acquisition of land gave us affordable flats without us worrying about rent rises. We can get on with our lives. We lived in a happy equilibrium for a while.

Somewhere between the "Swiss standard of living" and SG50 owning a flat was no more about providing a family home or security of tenure (or tenancy). Somewhere along the line owning an HDB property became an "investment", a stepping stone to owning an increasingly larger and ultimately a private property.

Somewhere along this same line, some people made a lot of money.

The ultimate HDB betrayal was to let people own both an HDB flat AND a private property at the same time. If you can afford a private property then you no longer need an HDB flat. You either need affordable housing, or you don't. These are mutually exclusive positions.  

There is a third, largely forgotten perspective: pioneer Singaporeans were encouraged to buy homes to sink their roots into our new nation. If you lock yourself into a 30-year mortgage, that means you must grow roots, even if you must work till you drop.

Besides, our property is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay. If HDB manages to house 100% of our population, there will be no demand for flats. No buyers means your HDB property will become worthless. Overnight.

Therefore it is important to keep creating a new pool of home-owners to maintain demand.

Thus, we have somehow managed to create an "aristocracy" based on (HDB) home ownership.

What to do? Maybe we should make it illegal for private home owners to also own an HDB flat. The increase in supply of flats will surely reduce the value of these flats thus pleasing those in Group A.

That will go down well with Group B. Not.

Or we need another paradigm shift: Let us only rent (says she who has never owned any real estate). As ultimately we would need to return our flats to HDB. Why bust a gut just to pretend that we own that property?? Have HDB build lovely flats and offer a rental scale that is inversely proportional to the number of children a family has.

Now that will solve both the housing and fertility problem. Don't say I don't say.

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