The success story of public housing and mass home ownership in Singapore is a matter of great national pride.Singapore is well known for its wide spread implementation of public housing that does not possess negative stereotypes of public housing, prevalent in other countries, as homes for the destitute and poor that are often hot spots for crime. In fact, public housing in the form of HDB (Housing and Development Board) blocks and estates are synonymous with Singapore’s landscape and figure significantly in Singapore’s identity as a nation.

The authorities have put in a great deal of effort over the years to ensure that most of the population has a roof over their heads and that home ownership is one of the key milestones in life to attain, with 80.4% of residents in Singapore owning a HDB flat[1]. The late Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision was to develop Singapore into a home-owning society where everybody would have a sense of ownership and the home as an asset would encourage people to work hard and to aspire for a better future[2]. The promotion of homeownership was  thus based upon the assumption that it would boost the country’s political, economic and social stability.

However, not everyone is able to afford home ownership in Singapore. Public rental housing in Singapore houses the bottom 5th percentile of the residents in Singapore. Its residents face a complex web of issues that range from social isolation, to issues that stem from extreme financial incapability. As such, HDB rental flats have the reputation of being homes for the desperately poor and the isolated elderly. Furthermore, the social stigma attached to rental housing comes along with its association with rampant crimes and filth.

Public rental housing is thus at the lowest rung of the housing system and its residents are similarly from the lowest social class of society. This stigmatization leads to social isolation and despite HDB’s efforts to integrate rental blocks into neighourhoods,  studies have shown that the residents of rental flats do not feel the same sense of belonging and community as the residents of owned flats[3]. The cyclical nature of rental housing tenancy also poses a challenge to community building efforts. Some residents stay for a few months whilst others stay on for many years. Therein lies the difficulty of establishing solid ties with the community and committing to a sense of ownership.

If Singapore wants to aim towards being a truly inclusive society that is responsive to the needs of all its citizens, more can be done to help low income households achieve a socially and economically sustainable lifestyle. Although social inequality can never be truly eradicated , that is not to say that we should not strive to minimize the gap between the top few and the bottom group.

However, the single-minded drive towards homeownership has led to the neglect of the public rental housing sector in Singapore. There are two types of rental schemes in Singapore: firstly, subletting of flats by existing HDB flat owners and secondly, rental housing for low income households.  With the majority of residents owning their flats in Singapore, HDB rental flats cater mainly to low income households who are unable to afford homeownership. The criteria for eligibility is very stringent and families who apply for rental housing must not have a monthly household income that exceeds $1500[4]. Demand for public rental housing comes primarily from the bottom 20th percentile[5] of the income population but the supply and eligibility criteria allow only the bottom 5th percentile to live in rental flats.

Although new models of rental blocks have been introduced recently,  the rental housing typology has not changed much over the years and typically consists of a slab block with a single or double loaded corridor.  Living conditions are not always desirable, as the rental housing blocks usually come with dark unwelcoming corridors and cramped living quarters.

Fig 1. Corridor at a block in Jalan Kukoh estate (Source: Author’s own)

Communal facilities are not always easily available to rental housing residents as well. For example, Block 569A and 569B in Woodlands have no sports or recreational facilities and residents must walk over to the neighbouring owner blocks to use facilities such as playgrounds and fitness corners[6]. Even then, the linkways from the owner blocks do not extend over into the rental estate, making mobility difficult during rainy weather. Whereas in Casa Clementi, the rental blocks share communal facilities together with the owner blocks on a common platform, giving them greater accessibility to the communal facilities. However, residents from both rental housing estates were still  found to display a low sense of belonging and attachment to the place. Certain preconceptions have been developed by both the rental community and owner residents about each other [7].


Fig 2.1. Plan of Casa Clementi
(Source:Hong Lin, See. 2014. “Study of the Community: Rental and Owner Blocks” Masters diss. National University of Singapore)


Fig 2.2. Woodlands Blocks 569A and 569B
(Source: Hong Lin, See. 2014. “Study of the Community: Rental and Owner Blocks” Masters diss. National University of Singapore)


In the context of Singapore’s greater levels of inequality, slower income growth for the lower and middle classes of society and rising home ownership costs, there should be a greater variety of housing options that meet different needs of residents in Singapore. The context that Singapore faces today is vastly different from the 1960s and it is time to re-evaluate old paradigms about housing[8]. Following this line of thought,  the notion of public rental housing also needs to be rethought and redefined for a country that has an evolving society and diverse growing needs.

By going beyond the current target tenant group to include students, independent working singles and couples, a more extensive and complex community can evolve and grow within rental housing.  Even with the expansion of the current rental housing demographics, one must not neglect the spatial and social needs of the lower income households. The redefinition of rental housing must happen on both levels: by including a wider range of households and also to reimagine the spaces of rental housing to be a place that provides opportunities for a more inclusive community.

The community can then draw upon the strengths and assets of a diverse group of people, creating a support network where there is interdependence between the residents.  There is the potential to develop the rental housing typology into a community that has at its core, a group of more permanent residents whilst still accommodating people who need a more temporary form of housing. This community based infrastructure would also encourage inter-generational support within the rental community for a more sustainable future.




[1] Department of Statistics Singapore. 2015. “Population Trends 2015” pg 5

[2] Lee Kuan Yew. 2000. Autobiography: From the Third World to First: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions, pg 116-117

[3] Hong Lin, See. 2014. “Study of the Community: Rental and Owner Blocks” Masters diss. National University of Singapore

[4] Housing and Development Board. 2015. “Public Rental Scheme Eligibility” Accessed 12th December 2015.

[5] Dominic, Tan Jin Xue. 2014. “Singapore’s housing provision system: Developing the HDB Rental Housing Market”  Bachelor Diss.  National University of Singapore

[6] Hong Lin, See. 2014.“Study of the Community: Rental and Owner Blocks” Masters diss. National University of Singapore

[7]Hong Lin, See. 2014 “Study of the Community: Rental and Owner Blocks” Masters diss. National University of Singapore

[8] Low, Donald. (2013, 4th June). Rethinking Singapore’ s Housing Policies. Today, pp. 12-14