By Rebecca Maxwell
What’s the first thing that you think of when you hear 'public housing'? I asked this question to five different people in the UK, and five different people in Singapore. My UK respondents answered with, “poor conditions”, “overcrowding”, “unfair circumstances”, “gang violence” and "drugs”. In a stark juxtaposition, my Singapore respondents answered with “freedom”.
Of course, while these are only mere perceptions, what questions do they spark about the sociality of public housing? Are the responses fair? Where do they come from?
When I first started unpacking these answers, a pivotal link between the UK and Singapore became apparent to me through two connecting dots in my respondents' answers, which were “affordability" and “government moderated”. These answers revealed that the connection between public housing in the UK and Singapore centres around the same social desire to house an ill and poor population in desperate need of proper housing.
The UK was the first to do this with (what would eventually become) council flats initialised in the early 20th century, where "philanthropists and a small number of far-sighted ‘corporations’ – the forerunners to modern-day local government councils – attempted to deliver humane habitation in response to the disease and degradation of the Victorian slums.” (Boughton cited in Deller, 2018).
Cut across the globe to South East Asia only a few decades later, and we see a similar establishment taking form. The Housing Development Board (HDB) in Singapore was established in 1960, while the island state was still under British rule. Singapore then became part of Malaysia, when the Crown colony was dissolved in 1963, ending 144 years of British rule in Singapore. Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 after two tense years of racial riots, and HDBs then started to become a significant part of Singapore’s social project. HDB wanted to transform Singapore from slums and kampongs (community villages) to high-rise and sanitised housing, which they did by making housing affordable amidst housing shortages, poverty and population growth (Rocha, 2011).
Public housing in these two parts of the globe was a crucial response to desperation and became a beacon of hope to try and make even one part of an unjust world, just. Post-establishment, however, was the breaking point for these two regions, setting them down two very different roads and explains why my participants’ answers were so polarised.
In the UK, during the 1940s and right up until the 1970s, millions were "lifted out of cramped, unhygienic slums and rehoused”. “Futuristic architecture” and “Streets in the Sky” were optimistically etched into an imagination of what moving people from slums to urban districts was supposed to look like. However, in a drive to build as many housing estates as possible, "quality and space standards were reduced and ultimately unsustainable methods of system-building” were used to construct these estates during the 1960s (Deller, 2018). By the 1970s, though more sustainable methods of building were being deployed, many “key social housing projects had serious faults that were dangerous and expensive to repair … that caused huge problems for the families living in them” (Inkpendownie).
Public housing in the UK had unfortunately culminated into a collection of the population’s poorest, really taking off after the 1970s. Socially this meant that, "council housing had become stigmatised and residualised” (Deller, 2018), and essentially became the housing option for people who had run out of options. The residualisation of those living in public housing is clearly evidenced in the 17% minority. What was once the hope that saved people from the streets, became backlashed with ostracisation.
As well as stigma, public housing in the UK also raises a difficult question about race. “Households with higher rates of renting social housing were from the Black African (44%), Mixed White and Black African (41%) and Black Caribbean (40%) ethnic groups” (gov.uk). Why is there an overrepresentation of Black communities in public housing and what effect does this have?
Kevin Gulliver has written extensively on how racial discrimination is a prominent feature in the UK's housing system, using the government’s racial disparity audit that acknowledges the disproportionate amount of discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities to support his arguments. Gulliver’s work highlights how,
“the level of housing stress in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME) is much higher than for whites. Homelessness has grown massively in BAME communities… BAME households are also far more likely to live in overcrowded, inadequate or fuel poor housing than whites, according to the study and confirmed by the Government’s audit… And their homes less often include safety features such as fire alarms, which is striking given the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy.” (Gulliver, 2017)
Racial inequality is written into UK housing, and these are precisely the inscribed texts that we need to read deeper into to understand how systemic racism impacts the lives of ethnic minorities.
In Singapore, on the other hand, we see a different type of social residualisation. With 80% of Singapore’s population living in HDB housing estates, stigma on public housing is forced to make an awkward exit. But is anyone left behind?
Having a majority of the population in public housing makes stigma seem obsolete as residents are not restricted to a specific social group. Instead, they lapse across low, middle and sometimes even upper classes. Singapore has also deployed public housing HDBs as an accessible gateway to becoming a home owner as they are massively more affordable than private housing, allowing 90% of the population to own their own homes. Public housing in Singapore also exists as an opportunity to become integrated into one of the largest integration programs in Singapore. This program takes the form of a unique social policy known as the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) that helps racially integrate its diverse ethnic mix through housing - a very juxtaposed narrative against the experience of ethnic minorities in the UK.
It makes it easy to see why in Singapore, “freedom” may be used as a synonym for public housing. This public housing ‘reality’ however, is not everyone’s. Because even though there is practically no stigma on public housing in contrast to private, there does still exist a minority within public housing itself. This minority are unable to buy their own public housing flats, and live in 1-2 bedroom HDBs. Sometimes entire families will only have one room to share between them all. This creates a complex stigma between them and the 90% of home owners in the same country.
The rental stigma is complex because they are not such an obvious community in Singapore. Instead, they are almost forgotten about, and become lost realities in Singapore’s ‘Third World to First World’ narrative (Tan, 2012).
This is in part to do with the idealisation of success in Singapore. The wealth of the country is also so easy to see with its "clean streets, orderliness, skyscrapers, not a beggar in sight. But the personal distribution of wealth may not be so visible" (Regardless of Class, 2018).
Like UK council housing, low-income rental families in Singapore are also residualised, and Singapore’s rapidly substantial growth meant that these households have somewhat been blurred out of the romanticised picture that the rest of the world sees. Even in a country that is able to use public housing as a force for social and racial cohesion has its pitfalls.
What this contrast has exposed is that the same festering issue crackles under the surfaces of what seem like two dynamically opposed countries. The issue being the idealised version of what housing is supposed to look like. In both the UK and in Singapore, there is an idealised, almost unchallenged ‘good’ regarding housing and this becomes problematic for anyone who is unable to join that narrative.
Consequently and despite the two different countries' efforts to protect a struggling population, it is clear that intention may not always have the anticipated effect and tragically public housing has had some negative consequences. A key consequence we must pay acute attention to is that for some of these residents, homelessness is not so abstract (Yenn, 2018). If relative poverty in UK public housing and Singapore’s rental sector is not an immediate reality, it very well could be lurking nearby.
The home therefore may be private, but its institutionalisation is not and awareness must be drawn to its consequential effects of the essential tension between minority-majority relationships.