What Singapore can teach Hobart about public housing

Tasmanian Executive Director Brian Wightman reflects on the Property Council's Study Tour to Singapore, and lessons learned for Hobart.

Tasmanian House of Assembly Speaker, the Hon. Sue Hickey MP, recently made a strong intervention when describing our public housing system as: “not fit for animals.”

The Housing Minister, the Hon. Roger Jaensch responded immediately with the announcement of the second stage of the Affordable Housing Strategy – Tasmania’s Affordable Housing Action Plan 2019 – 2023 (Action Plan 2).

This second stage of the Strategy has a commitment of an additional $125 million, taking the total investment in affordable housing to nearly $200 million over eight years. This will result in a total of 3600 households assisted under both Action Plan 1 and Action Plan 2, including the new supply of 2400 affordable lots and homes.” stated Mr Jaensch in an email.

In recent weeks, I have made it clear that the greater Launceston area must consider the impact of increasing population and student numbers, a rental and housing shortage, and a lack of diversity in the market including a dearth of shop-top living, flats, units, town houses and medium density developments.

Launceston may be smaller in population than Hobart, however the same issues that have plagued our capital city will hit the north in the next 18-36 months and I am urging (begging!) politicians at every level to act now before it is too late.

During recent debates about building heights, I have been accused of wanting to turn areas of Hobart into a ‘mini Singapore’.

Encountering this mistruth, I rebutted with vigour, and having just returned from Singapore – the City in a Garden, full to the brim with new understandings, an opportunity exists to share a host of relevant and useful ideas on city development.

It was made clear to the Property Council of Australia delegation not to compare Australia to Singapore, rather, to learn lessons.

And whilst I am not incognisant of human rights and political differences, my focus for this discussion remains on housing supply.

Singapore has a unicameral parliamentary government, having gained independence in 1965.

It remains a ‘tiger economy’, with brands such as Facebook and Netflix relocating their Asian headquarters to the island.

Singapore’s ‘Founding Father’, the first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew was elected in 1959.

A public housing building program began at his behest in 1960 when the Housing and Development Board was established. Just six years later in 1965, 54,000 flats had been built, and by the end of the decade the housing crisis was resolved.

A staggering 82 per cent of the current 5.6 million population are accommodated in public housing, purchasing their homes from the government, which owns most of the land.

The key to this incredible success is a sophisticated planning system facilitated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A Concept Plan, reviewed every 10 years, considers Singapore’s population growth, transport, land use, economic needs and quality living environments for the next 50 years, with the Master Plan a medium-term strategy over 10-15 yeas, which is reviewed every five years.

Further, streamlined regulation resulting in development applications being approved by the URA’s Development Control department ensure projects begin six weeks after lodgement. And if you think that the flats are, consequently, of lesser quality, you are mistaken. They can be modest or luxurious, but ultimately, they are the result of a carefully planned and unwavering commitment to public housing.

Singapore will face challenges into the future regarding land supply. They are the most densely populated country in the world, with 7,797 persons per square kilometre across a land area of 719.2 square kilometres.  To put those numbers in perspective, if the same density was applied in Australia, the world’s population could fit in New South Wales!

“Not fit for animals” may be a headline grabber, but it’s not a plan, nor is it a solution.

The only way we can truly address the housing shortage in Tasmania is to add supply. Whatever the headlines about housing quality may say, it is a certainly that there are too few houses available to renters and purchasers alike. As a matter of urgency, the State Government’s proposed legislation to create a medium density housing corridor in Hobart must be passed.

Unfortunately, precedence suggests that the creation of a new zone may take 18 months. That is clearly unacceptable, and the process must not take anywhere near that amount of time.

Therefore, and in line with lessons learned, we have retitled the State Government’s strategy, which will now be known as Tasmania’s Housing Action Plan 2019 – 2069 to encourage more long-term consideration of economic, social and environmental needs.

Tasmanians must also challenge those who bitterly complain about inner-city residential developments, because they are the same people who complain about struggling Tasmanians living in tents at the showgrounds.

Providing housing for all Tasmanians should be our number one priority. The Minister requires support from all of us to get it done.