Column: Housing in Singapore, Hong Kong inspire call for isle action
In Hong Kong this summer, a 44-member delegation from Hawaii toured a building of illegally subdivided apartments, each smaller than a standard parking stall.
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In Hong Kong this summer, a 44-member delegation from Hawaii toured a building of illegally subdivided apartments, each smaller than a standard parking stall. Thousands more lived in literal dog cages. While this horrific scene may seem far-fetched, Hawaii today has many boarding houses that aren’t much better. If we don’t radically change our approach to affordable housing, Hong Kong’s cage homes will be our ghost of Christmas future.
In Hawaii, about 18,000 babies are born every year, and 10,000 people die, which means we need to house 8,000 new local people every year. We’re lucky to get 2,000 new housing units built. It doesn’t matter if all 8,000 are billionaires; the housing simply does not exist to accommodate them. The resulting exodus of our young people to the mainland has caused two straight years of population decline, the first time in state history.
The only way to end our housing shortage is to increase supply — dramatically. Singapore has done this by building 20,000 new public housing units per year, all attractive and well-maintained. Today, 82% of its population lives in public housing.
We don’t need a lot of land. Singapore is half the size of Oahu, with over five times the population.
In Hong Kong, we visited one housing estate with 23,000 residents in 9,300 apartments on only 16 acres of land. At that level of density, redeveloping the Aloha Stadium site alone would erase nine years of housing demand. Each unit was within a five-minute walk to everything you need: public transportation, a mall with 39 shops, two kindergartens, badminton courts, and so on. It was so convenient one doesn’t need a car — and the estate had only 385 parking stalls. Similarly walkable neighborhoods exist everywhere: in Greenwich Village in New York, Shinjuku in Tokyo, the Latin Quarter in Paris, or even right here in Kakaako, where developers sell high-density condos for big bucks.
At the policy level, Singapore and Hong Kong’s land use planning is aligned from top to bottom, so after taking public input into account, what’s planned actually gets built. They use innovative construction techniques, such as modular and prefabrication, to bring down costs.
Moreover, Singapore makes its public housing available to all its citizens, regardless of income. Just as our Department of Education doesn’t ask how much money you make when sending your child to public school, public services should be for the public. A community of diverse incomes is a stronger community. A community divided between haves and have-nots is a formula for social disintegration.
Of course, copying-and-pasting Singapore’s or Hong Kong’s policies here doesn’t work. Given tight budgets, Hawaii cannot rely on unlimited government subsidies. We cannot impose, as Singapore does, a 23% forced-savings requirement for housing. We cannot further pave over agricultural or conservation land, or reclaim new islands out of the open ocean, like Hong Kong proposes. We should prohibit wealthy overseas investors from snapping up our public housing supply, but we should go even further by including airtight enforcement of owner-occupancy.
We have to start somewhere. Our children and grandchildren deserve the opportunity to live here. Building affordable homes for local people on state-owned lands along Oahu’s planned rail system provides us with our last, best opportunity to create convenient, walkable communities to end the housing shortage.
The Singapore housing model will be discussed at a Nov. 6 conference, organized by state Sen. Stanley Chang; RSVP at hawaiihousingconference.com.