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Singapore Public Housing Over the Years: What Has Changed



The Housing & Development Board (HDB) was formed on 1st February 1960, with the task of solving Singapore’s housing crisis. In the 1940s and 50s, many Singaporeans were living kampongs, and usually in unhygienic surroundings. As the HDB celebrated its 60th year in 2020, we take a look at Singapore’s public housing over the years and some of the differences.


Back in 1960, only 9% of Singaporeans lived in government flats, today, about 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. In the early days, there were only one to three room flats. Then, the flats, were simple and functional and fitted with basic amenities such as piped water and electricity. Much has changed over the past 60 years in terms of the design and functionality of HDB flats.


With the economic boom of the 70s and 80s, there was strong demand for larger flats and that was when four-room and five-room flats were introduced.


Void Decks


Void decks were first introduced in the 1970s. Not only do they feature basic amenities such as lift landings, letter boxes, bicycle racks, dustbins, public telephones and staircase landings, they also provided shelter from the rain and sun, promote good airflow and natural light, and allow passers-by easy passage through the estates. Void decks then were spacious, airy and mainly rectangular in shape, furnished with benches and tables for social interaction.


Today, void decks are seen as convenient spaces for activities such as Malay weddings, Chinese funerals, bird singing corner and polling stations during the General Elections. Some void decks contain permanent features such as children’s libraries, Residential Committee (RC) Centres and Neighourhood Police Posts (NPPs).


Unit Size & Price


According to the HDB, the typical HDB flat today is indeed smaller in size than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. However, it has remained constant in size since 1997. If you see the table below, the sizes of HDB flats actually got bigger from the 70s to the 90s. A 3-room flat in the 90s was about 753 sqft as compared with 646 sqft in the 70s. However, the current size of a 3-room flat is only about 699 sqft.


The average Singaporean household size significantly decreased from 4.87 persons in 1980 to 3.30 persons in 2017. So this could be a reason why HDB flats have gotten smaller. The current HDB flats may be smaller in size but with a more efficient layout, it is actually more livable.


The prices of new HDB flats have gone up steady from the 1970s to today, due to numerous reasons i.e. inflation, labour and material costs etc. The HDB resale prices peaked in 2013 and since then have been trending downwards. However, it staged a stunning rebound in 2020 when resale prices went up by about 5% against the previous year.


Lift Landing


HDB flats built before 1990 were not designed for lifts to stop at every floor. As Singapore is facing a fast aging population, the government launched the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) in 2001 to provide lift access on every floor of older HDB flats, to improve accessibility and mobility for the elderly.


Since then, lifts in HDB flats were enhanced with better safety features such as high-tech sensors to monitor the lift speed, and emergency communication systems.


In the older HDB flats, the lift landing was a no-frills entry area to the elevators. The newer HDB lift landings are set to be installed with smart screens providing useful information on transport and weather for the community. QR codes are also installed by The Municipal Services Office (MSO), to simplify the way residents can report issues. Under the programme, called OneService Lite, QR codes can be scanned at lift landings to alert Government agencies and Town Councils about problems in neighbourhoods, without having to know which agency or Town Council is in charge.


Household / Bomb Shelter


In the 1980s, hundreds of public bomb shelters were installed all over Singapore; at HDB void decks, MRT stations and even in schools. Bomb shelters located in HDB in void decks were created for use in the event of a war or terrorist attack and are left vacant during normal times.


However, since the 1990s, HDB were renting out the bomb shelters for commercial use such as student care centres and convenience stores. Renters of these bomb shelters must ensure that the toilets are functioning, and the lights in working condition, along with the air ventilation system. According to Singapore Civil Defense Force (SCDF) and HDB, should the shelters be required during times of emergency, tenants will have 48 hours to remove their furniture, equipment and fixtures before handing over the premises back to the SCDF.


After 1994, household bomb shelters were built inside new HDB flats for easy access. A household bomb shelter has its walls, floor and ceiling strengthened with increased thickness. The walls are set back from the building exterior and the door is made of an SCDF-approved light protective steel. Every household bomb shelter gives protection to residents against weapon effects such as blast and fragments during an emergency. Homeowners are not allowed to tamper with the bomb shelter door, structural walls, and the floor and ceiling slabs.



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