Vaughn Palmer: Eby lines up housing education in Singapore

Vaughn Palmer: Eby lines up housing education in Singapore

Opinion: The B.C. premier hopes to learn more about the city state’s innovative housing policies during next month’s official visit

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VICTORIA — Premier David Eby has included a visit to Singapore on his upcoming trade mission, hoping to learn from the innovative housing policies in the city state.

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“We have some similar challenges,” the premier told reporters Friday.

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“They are a country with very constrained land area for building, huge population, and massive demand for housing, and their government made the decision, like our government is now, to be involved in ensuring there was housing for middle-income families in Singapore.”

Eby made his comments on the eve of his scheduled departure on a 12-day mission that also includes visits to Japan and South Korea. He finishes up in Singapore June 3-7.

There are business and academic relationships to be cultivated in Singapore as well, he acknowledged.

Still, housing is the key for what government records show is the first official visit to Singapore by a B.C. premier.

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“For us in B.C., the idea that a government sees housing as a central infrastructure for economic success, sees housing for middle income people as being essential to the growth and posterity of the whole society, is very much in sync with what we’re doing here in B.C., the steps that we’re taking,” Eby said.

Eby plans to meet with the country’s public housing authority and housing development boards, regarded as central to Singapore’s success in developing public housing in high-density areas.

“They established an entity that began building that housing — I believe it was in the ’70s — and today has produced tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of units of attainable housing for Singapore citizens,” Eby said.

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“This is a country that faces massive immigration, huge economic pressure as a financial centre, a very prosperous country, and they’re still able to ensure significant availability of affordable housing for Singaporean citizens.”

Considering the premier’s interest in the Singapore model, there’s a timely book coming out this summer by David Ley, professor emeritus of urban geography at UBC.

Housing Booms in Gateway Cities is described in the promotional literature as “a detailed exploration of housing markets in Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Vancouver, and London.

“It explains why these gateway cities have seen dramatic increases in residential real estate prices since the 1980s and describes how the globalization of real estate has rapidly inflated demand and uncoupled local housing prices from local wages, causing acute problems of affordability, availability, and inequality.

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The book “highlights the relatively unique experience in Singapore, where asset-based housing policy has encouraged the dispersion of ownership and accumulation through an increased supply of subsidized leasehold apartments and the regulation of disruptive investment flows.”

Which sounds like it might have been taken from the premier’s briefing notes for his visit to Singapore.

Ley outlined some of the main points in the book in an interview with Douglas Todd of The Vancouver Sun awhile back.

He characterizes the Singapore housing model as “municipal socialism,” in contrast to the city state’s approach on other fronts.

“Typically, Singapore gets the prize of being the most business-friendly and economically open society there is,” said Ley. “But, when it comes to housing, it battens down the hatches hard.

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“It’s plan from the beginning was that everyone who is a (citizen) would be a homeowner, buying housing from the government, which is the principal landowner, or from a much smaller private sector.”

As a result, nine out of 10 citizens of Singapore own a dwelling, said Ley. Nearly all are apartments, ranging from run-of-the-mill to elegant. Most are leased for 99 years from the government. Another 20 per cent of housing is exchanged on the private market.

“That means the majority of citizens are allowed to choose from decent or stylish government-built apartments in well-planned communities, which slowly grow in value because prices are controlled by taxation policy. It results in most residents being able to move up the housing ladder,” reported Todd.

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The premier noted that Singapore has previously influenced policy-making here in B.C., having been one of the inspirations for the foreign-buyers tax under the previous B.C. Liberal government.

Singapore has also taken some drastic action, taxation wise, to discourage its citizens from buying up housing for investment purposes.

“Singapore’s politicians also curb speculation by local investors,” Todd reported last year. “They slapped a 17 per cent tax on citizens who buy a second property and 25 per cent tax on their third property.”

Was that one of the innovations Eby was considering?

“I’m very curious and interested to see what they’ve been up to in Singapore,” replied Eby. “But that specific piece is not one I’m familiar with and it’s not something we’re currently looking at,

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“What we’re really looking at now is how do we address the failure of the market to build out middle-income housing that’s needed — that’s actually attainable for people to either rent or to buy.”

Eby acknowledged Friday that there are also significant differences between the South Asian city-state and British Columbia.

Still, expect to hear a lot more about the Singapore model when the premier returns next month.

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