Million-dollar HDB flats and shoebox apartments: Whose prerogative is it anyway?

As Singapore’s population continues to grow and the amount of land available for property development remains finite, the prospect of demand far outstripping supply (or to be specific, the supply of affordable housing) is becoming a hot-button issue for many Singaporeans concerned with rapidly rising property prices and the shrinking sizes of flats.

( Should we let demand and supply determine property prices or should the authorities step in to dictate it? Image courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board.)

Hot on the heels of the DBSS fiasco comes the news that the owner of a 1,528 sq ft HDB flat in Pasir Ris is putting it on the market for $900,000. This is not the first time that a public housing flat has found itself with such a huge price tag. Last year, an HDB executive maisonette in Bishan was sold for the same amount of money. The 18-year old, 1,860 sq ft flat had a roof terrace and although it was valued at $730,000, the owner had gone ahead with an asking price of $950,000. Previously, the record for Singapore’s most expensive flat had gone to a 1,614 sq ft flat in Queenstown, which was sold for $890,000 in 2008.

What is sparking incredulity among Singaporeans regarding this latest development is that not only is the flat in question not in a prime district – the only places in its vicinity are a park, Tampines Expressway and Meridian Junior College – it also doesn’t have any facilities to speak of or any malls or MRT stations within walking distance. In light of this, this makes Centrale 8’s $778,000 five-room unit look like a bargain in comparison, given that the property is located near the MRT station and Tampines Mall.

No doubt people are waiting with baited breath to see if anyone is willing to part with close to a million dollars for the flat, and perhaps of more interest, why anyone would want to spend that much money on one, which in itself raises another question: if buyers, after weighing the merits and demerits of such a purchase, are willing to fork out $900,000 on this flat, should it not be their prerogative to do so?

This brings us to another housing topic that has inspired much debate: shoebox flats (i.e. units that are less than 500 sq ft in size.) In recent years, the property market has seen a spike in the popularity of these units due to a variety of factors: first, it has been gripped with a downsizing trend – more people are choosing four-room flats over five-room units and second, in the private property sector these mini units are a hit with singles and expats as they constitute the most affordable options.

Despite reports that most of the buyers (mainly expats and singles) who bought them were happy with their purchases, readers have questioned these units’ impact on people’s standard of living. One of the popular arguments against them is that people will have to spend more time outside to avoid being cooped up at home, thus driving up living expenses. Some have also suggested that such units may not be conducive, in the words of one property developer, to “developing family life” (though one would think that a bigger culprit where this problem is concerned is the lack of a proper work-life balance and the fact that fathers are not allowed to take paternity leave in Singapore.) Others have voiced their concern that this may be another tactic of private developers to raise their profit margins by developing ever-shrinking units.

In a letter to the Straits Times forum on July 4, a reader suggested that the URA specify guidelines for a “net usable living area…[that would be] a comfortable fit for a family of three and spacious for a single or a couple.” In response, another reader replied that legislating against shoebox apartments would distort market forces and limit informed choices unnecessarily.

Both readers have valid concerns but the point made about having the freedom to make an informed choice is a particularly significant one.

If we allow the authorities to start drawing up guidelines on how we should live, what’s to stop them from telling us how to live the rest of our lives? Where would we draw the line after that?