A frank discussion on public housing affordability

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"How much should Housing Development Board (HDB) flats be priced at for you to consider public housing to be affordable?" That was the question participants were asked at last week's session of the Ministry of National Development (MND)'s Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). It was a question that elicited mixed feelings from many people in the room but it was one that had to be asked nonetheless.

That question was further complicated by the follow up that was posed to the participants: "Please vote on a sliding scale if you think Build To Order (BTO) prices should either decrease by more than 10%, decrease by 10%, no change, increase by 10% or increase by more than 10%." 

And just like that, everyone in the room was involved in a serious discussion on Public Housing Affordability with civil servants from MND acting as the discussion's facilitators. 

It was a frank and open dialog on a topic that was considered a sacred cow to the government. There were no answers that were considered bad responses that night. It was quite obvious that everyone in the room, from the Senior Minister of State for MND, Mr. Lee Yi Shyan, to the note takers from MND, that every stake holder in the room was keenly interested and more importantly, actively listening to what was being said by the everyday Singaporeans present.

A cursory glance around the room revealed that the majority of those present voted for BTOs to decrease by more than 10%.  It was obvious the majority of Singaporeans wanted HDB to stick to its original mission of providing affordable public housing for Singaporeans. 

The discussion became more heated when the topic of HDB resale prices came up. Many in the room felt that the decision to let resale prices of HDB flats be determined by free market forces was the main reason that had caused the price of HDB flats to skyrocket. It was a perception that was reinforced by someone from the real estate industry in the audience. He stated a matter a factly, that HDB four room resale flats were the biggest cash cows for people in real estate as he tried to make his case on why the government needed to continue letting the free market determine the value of a HDB resale flat.

Several participants argued that this was how HDB had lost sight of its original mission of providing public housing at an affordable price. They said that MND should return to the old policy where HDB acted as a middle man of sorts: People would sell their flats back to HDB, which would in turn then go on to sell the used homes to Singaporeans who were looking for accommodations. It was especially heartening to see that the people who were making this argument, were parents who said they had to be a part of this discussion because they were worried about their children's future. It was obvious that avarice had not clouded these parents' opinion on public housing affordability.

The evening's discussion soon came to an end with no unanimous agreement on what could be done to make public housing more affordable to all Singaporeans. But it seemed that most participants were departing with a slight spring in their step. They appeared hopeful that everything that they talked about that night would weigh heavily on the present civil servants cum policy makers when the right moment comes along.

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