In this Explainer, find out...
What does the Government hope to achieve by introducing integrated HDB blocks?
Has the policy succeeded in promoting interactions among households with varying backgrounds?
What do residents living in integrated HDB blocks think of the policy?
In the dynamic landscape of urban planning and housing, Singapore has emerged as a model of innovation. One of the most intriguing developments in recent years is the concept of integrated Housing & Development Board (HDB) blocks, which house rental and purchased flats within the same complex. This approach seeks to not only address housing needs, but also foster inclusivity and cohesion.
With three of such housing blocks having already been rolled out and 17 more in the pipelines, we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of integrated HDB blocks. Will they necessarily promote interaction among families of different backgrounds? What do residents living in these blocks think about its design? Stick around as we explore this policy in detail through this Policy Explainer!
Why the Change?
One of the key societal issues that Singapore grapples with is income inequality. Despite the country's overall economic prosperity and remarkable development, there are individuals and families who continue to face financial hardships. There are government schemes that aim to uplift these groups; for instance, households whose monthly incomes do not exceed S$1,500 are eligible to rent public flats from HDB.¹ As their income is significantly lower than the median household income of S$10,000, rental rates are heavily subsidised, ranging from S$26 to S$275 per month.²
As of 2023, there are 289 blocks of HDB rental flats across the island (see Figure 1), catering to over 50,000 rental households (see Figure 2).
In an effort to prevent the formation of social enclaves based on income levels, then-Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong announced in May 2018 that the Government would be adopting a novel approach by constructing both rental and purchased flat units within the same housing block.⁵ Unlike traditional public housing that may segregate rental and purchased units, integrated HDB blocks seek to bring individuals and families of varied socioeconomic backgrounds into closer proximity, enabling them to have sustained daily interactions. Over time, this can lead to stronger social bonds, better mutual understanding, and a more harmonious living environment, thereby fostering social cohesion.
This policy is the latest addition to an arsenal of measures that seek to prevent income stratification and strengthen social cohesion in Singapore.
Introducing Integrated HDB Blocks
Concerns about growing inequality and social stratification were key motivating factors behind the construction of integrated HDB blocks. According to a survey conducted by Onepeople.sg in 2018, around half of the 1,036 respondents felt that income inequality was the likeliest factor to cause social divides in Singapore — it was more salient than even race or religion.⁶ The government also shared similar beliefs, which were reflected in Minister Lawrence Wong’s speech about the policy in 2018. He emphasised the need for government intervention in inequality through its urban planning policies, to prevent growing physical divisions between socio-economic groups.⁷
Moreover, the policy to construct integrated HDB blocks was built upon the success of an earlier policy: the construction of rental flats in the same neighbourhoods as purchased flats since 2008. As of 2018, there were two of these flats in Tampines, with three others in Pasir Ris, Punggol and Bishan. The results of this policy were viewed favourably, as placing both types of flats in the same neighbourhood allowed residents to share amenities and interact.⁸ Thus, integrated HDB blocks would place rental and purchased flats’ residents in even closer proximity, and provide further opportunities for interaction.
To maximise interaction, integrated HDB blocks are constructed according to specific guidelines. Both rental and purchased units are built on the same floor, rather than being separated into different floors based on unit types. Units are specially designed to minimise the visual differences between rental and purchased units, so that residents cannot be distinguished based on the appearance of their flat.
The results of such features were positive, according to studies conducted by the Ministry of National Development (MND). Living on the same floor and the lack of visual distinction of flat types promoted “more interactions” between residents of rental and purchased flats.⁹
As of September 2023, three integrated HDB blocks have been completed. They are located at Fernvale Glades, Marsiling Greenview, and West Plains@Bukit Batok.¹⁰ Between 2024 and 2028, 15 more integrated HDB blocks will be completed in various locations across Singapore, including locations that contain Prime Location Housing projects.¹¹
How have the Changes Fared?
Studies by MND indicated that integrated HDB blocks have been effective in promoting interaction and bonding between residents of both flat types. Apart from the unique design features of these flats (elaborated upon in the “Policy Implementation” section above), shared amenities and community- organised events were also key in promoting social interactions.
Based on results from the three existing integrated HDB blocks, MND has concluded that these findings were “encouraging” and showed that “mixed blocks are important for inclusive public housing”.¹² These positive outcomes have likely encouraged the continued construction of more integrated HDB blocks, with a total of 20 flats being launched as of March 2023.
Sociologists from the Singapore University of Social Sciences and the National University of Singapore have also praised the initiative. Firstly, they shared that grouping rental units with smaller purchased flats (e.g., three-room flats) was useful in minimising the contrast in socio-economic statuses between residents. Secondly, the sociologists affirmed that living in the same block provided sufficient proximity for social interactions to occur between neighbours. However, the success of such interactions depended on whether residents hold pre-existing prejudices about the other.¹³
Residents of rental units have generally expressed positive views towards living in integrated HDB blocks, citing reasons such as better access to amenities and greater feelings of social inclusion. Compared to typical rental flats, rental flat residents stated that integrated HDB blocks were in closer proximity to amenities like clinics and coffee shops. Additionally, by living in proximity with flat owners, it is possible for rental flat residents to feel greater aspirations towards attaining home ownership.¹⁴
More importantly, these integrated blocks are also effective in promoting feelings of integration. Mr. Ashvin Pillai, a resident of Marsiling Greenview, expressed that such flats ensured that rental residents do not feel “chucked aside” from society by “[keeping] everyone equal”.¹⁵
On the other hand, some rental flat residents have expressed reservations towards living in an integrated HDB block, due to fears of misunderstanding by owners of purchased flats. Mr. Cheow Kit Yeong expressed his preference for living in a block with only rental units, citing concerns about receiving judgement and complaints. He and his rental neighbours were “more or less equal”, but wealthier residents may “look down” on him.¹⁶ These concerns are valid, and they reveal that more work is needed to tackle stereotypes against rental flat residents, so that their anxieties about discrimination can be assuaged.
Residents of purchased flats are mostly accepting of their rental flat neighbours, with a minority expressing reservations about them. Some have complained about issues regarding cleanliness and noise, though other residents recognise that these problems occur in both rental and purchased flats, and that they have not encountered such issues from rental flat residents.¹⁷
Mdm Nor, an integrated HDB block resident, expressed the need for greater understanding between neighbours. She was also keen on organising bonding activities for her neighbours.¹⁸ Apart from top-down initiatives, these ground-up activities are also crucial in deepening bonds between residents from both housing types, and encouraging greater understanding across social classes.
One of the main merits of integrated HDB blocks lies in their design, avoiding visual distinctions between rental and purchased flats. This feature will continue to be implemented in future integrated HDB blocks, helping to promote more interactions.¹⁹ It prevents residents from holding preconceptions about their neighbours based on flat types, providing conducive conditions for socialisation.
Are there any improvements that can be made for future iterations? Based on current residents’ reactions, more efforts are needed to address prejudices. However, the challenge lies in finding ways to achieve this. Increased interactions can dismantle stereotypes, but will apprehension discourage rental flat residents from pursuing these interactions in the first place?
Another area for improvement identified by the Government lies in hosting more bonding events, preferably ground-up initiatives, between rental and purchased flat residents. Based on Government findings, it is important for these events to avoid distinguishing residents based on flat types.²⁰ Perhaps, this could be a path forward for dispelling preconceptions between both groups.
As the Government attempts to develop a more inclusive society, the integrated HDB blocks policy represents its efforts to reduce divisions along socio-economic lines. Although the policy is still being closely studied by MND, it seems promising given that more integrated HDB blocks are being completed in the next five years. With a combination of Government policies and ground-up resident initiatives, these flats may become the catalyst for greater understanding among Singaporeans from all walks of life.
This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.
By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.