Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Crafting responsive housing policies

Dec 8 2015

Public views are being sought on the Fresh Start Housing Scheme to be aimed at struggling families with children, living in public rental flats. At first glance, some might frown at those who've squandered public housing ownership benefits obtained earlier, wound up in rental homes again, and are now back in line for another flat offered cheaply by the state to the low-income. Indeed, the received wisdom, that has made the nation a crucible of self responsibility, is built on the notion that it's both need and the motivation to move forward on one's own steam that justifies wide social support given to those who are down. If such individuals seek to simply cash out subsidised assets, that would be ruinous for both them and society as a whole over time.

However, a changing ethos has led to policymakers seeing the issues affecting low-wage families through the multiple lenses of sociology, economics, culture and psychology. Dysfunctionality can arise for a variety of reasons, like unstable relationships, money woes, unemployment, a family member's addiction or imprisonment, and illness. To implement housing rules strictly could further hobble such families, while lax regulation of benefits might not bring about positive change.

To strike a proper balance, one must first acknowledge what economists call the "positive externalities" (broad public benefits) of housing schemes. These are realised when children do not fall behind educationally living in cramped rented quarters, families avoid homelessness, local communities are improved, and the cycle of poverty is not left unbroken. Fundamentally, sound schemes promote social solidarity by letting disadvantaged Singaporeans know their fellow citizens are fully on board in wanting to offer them opportunities to advance.

Housing as a key social foundation of the nation (the others being education, Central Provident Fund, and healthcare) calls for a flexible policy approach. It is true that home ownership alone is no guarantee of progress - as seen in America where even after it was championed by a number of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ushered in mass ownership, to George W. Bush, black families have "made barely any progress" in accumulating wealth over past decades for different reasons, according to The Atlantic magazine. Here, the temptation of owners to realise a quick profit and later take another bite of the HDB cherry might also lead to negative results. Hence, underlying problems (like destructive lifestyle and economic choices) must be addressed too, as it's the children who will suffer if a deteriorating home environment affects their health and learning. It's prudent, therefore, to require Fresh Start applicants to put their lives in order, for example, by holding a steady job and keeping children in school, while making flats more affordable for them.

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