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Inter-Governmental Wrangling: A True Menace To Affordable Housing?

Colourful high rise public housing buildings in Singapore
Housing in Singapore photo by XLPeabrain is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Singapore public housing. Why Honolulu, Hawaii and Burnaby, British Columbia need to be more like Singapore.

From the Right: eliminate onerous government regulations and the free market will build us all out of affordable housing crises, providing the necessary housing for ownership by the ‘workforce,’ as well as rental accommodations for the lower classes.

From the Left: free market profit motive will always thwart affordability. Only governments can successfully build, own, and rent sufficient quantities of affordable housing to solve national affordability problems.

And then there is Singapore.

This city state has, for nearly three quarters of a century, achieved what appears in so many countries to be nigh on impossible — balancing the investment benefits of a free market economy with a government-led social imperative to provide shelter for all.

Singapore has successfully implemented a public housing model based on home ownership for all income levels. This is completely unusual compared to more conventional public housing models that are based on government built and managed housing for affordable rental. Today more than 90% of Singapore’s citizens are home owners.

So what is Singapore’s secret?

One possible answer is reflected in a recent Hawaiian building proposal based on the Singapore model. It has received considerable pushback from the housing industry, among others. That’s because the plan would require what seems to be an impossible dream — a high degree of coordination between levels of government. Read more in HONOLULU CIVIL BEAT: Singapore Is An Affordable Housing Model, But Can Hawaii Follow?

And just how does Singapore manage to overcome that problem? Well, it doesn’t have to.

Singapore is a city state with one government. While every organization may suffer from disagreement between different departments, Singapore has not had to deal with two or more governments, each with overlapping duties and responsibilities in the delivery of affordable housing. This three-or-more legged race seems to be an impossible-to-avoid feature of modern democratic governments.

So is intergovernmental cooperation really that important? In answer, we offer a recent series of perplexed and perplexing email exchanges between the Government of British Columbia and the City of Burnaby. They reflect the difficult-to-appreciate trials of two governments trying to get on the same page in order to deliver affordable housing, a laudable objective and an important commitment for both. Read more in Burnabynow: Burnaby’s ‘Onerous’ Processes Delayed Affordable Housing Project: BC Housing

One can conclude that, beyond proposing that Burnaby quit Canada to become its own city-state, the multilevel government model prevalent in modern democracies requires strong, firm, leadership. That can only come from the top, demanding and enforcing the cooperation necessary to meet the challenge.

Even Singapore has difficulty balancing a free market society with a commitment to the basic human right to adequate shelter, in spite of being a monolithic city government. Read more about Singapore’s unusual public housing success, as well as pitfalls that can undermine the balance between investment and shelter, in BNN Bloomberg: Singapore’s Public Housing, Envy Of The World, Hits Rough Patch

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