David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy and a new Substack newsletter.
Some people may not wish to hear it, but Canada’s housing crisis is not going to improve unless we upend the status quo. Public housing and the partial or complete decommodification of shelter as an asset is a good place to start that work. Housing does not have to be an asset, nor should it.
Indeed, it is a fundamental human need and a public good. The case of Singapore – a city-state much denser than Toronto in which 80 per cent of people live in public housing – is illustrative of what might be done in Canada if we summon up our courage, get the policy design right and fully commit to fixing the housing crisis with the power of the state. There are many reasons we ought to.
Unaffordable housing is first and foremost a moral issue. Everyone ought to be able to afford a safe, clean place to live. For those who don’t buy the moral argument, however, it’s also an economic issue. Unaffordable housing is bad for cities and economies. Poor mobility and a lack of essential workers – and, indeed, a lack of a variety of different types of workers – hobbles industry and ties down municipal governments, limiting what they can accomplish. And when people have to spend more of their income on shelter, it means they have less money to spend on other things.
The model that prioritizes housing as an asset is a great way to develop a feudal class of wealthy landowners, especially rising corporate housing oligopolists. But it’s a terrible way to build a city, or an economy, for that matter.
Singapore has long recognized that. That is why the vast majority of its citizens live in public housing. Singapore is an island about the size of Toronto but with a population the size of the Greater Toronto Area. To solve its housing issues, its leaders felt they had no other choice but to effectively nationalize its housing.
The country’s Housing and Development Board offers 99-year leases with housing values adjusted based on the home’s utility value. Under this arrangement, the government has made sure that home financing is widely accessible. Singapore has among the world’s highest per-capita gross domestic product, and the cost of living is notoriously high. But most people earning a reasonable income – as long as they fulfill certain criteria such as being a citizen and being married or over the age of 35 – can get an apartment if they want one. We can’t say the same thing about Canada.
Moreover, public housing in Singapore is lauded for being safe, livable and properly maintained. In countries such as Canada and the United States, public housing is viewed by many with a deep prejudice that assumes not only that such shelter is filthy, dangerous and a sign of social and economic failure, but also that it cannot be otherwise. That perspective is wrong, offensive and deeply counterproductive.
We can build and maintain world-class public housing. We just have to want to do it, commit to doing it and choose to ignore those who undermine our efforts to do so because of their prejudice or cynical self-interest.
Writing for the World Bank, Abhas Jha, the organization’s practice manager for climate change and disaster risk management for South Asia, says there are four lessons from Singapore that are replicable beyond its borders. Those lessons include well-designed, mixed neighbourhoods; density; competent and integrated building practices; and a deep, long-term commitment by politicians to build public housing – and build it properly.
Singapore’s housing model isn’t perfect, but its relative affordability is notable. It’s also a proof of concept for others, especially if a country is going to insist on widespread home-ownership. Canada ought to take the model seriously and invest in building public housing.
Naturally, the relationship between levels of government here will complicated the process and make it more difficult than it is for a unitary state, but federalism doesn’t make it impossible to build good public housing in Canada – it just means we have to work hard at it. The hardest part will be accepting that it’s possible.
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