The biggest challenge for low-cost housing in the country – apart from actually building enough low-cost homes – is the maintenance of these blocks.

The effectiveness of the maintenance depends on:

  • the level of community solidarity (including an accountable residents committee),
  • income levels (the pressure of contributing to maintenance when wages can barely keep up with the cost of living) and
  • household debt (which has been rising).

This article from theSun:

HDB flair for our public housing
Posted on 1 March 2012 – 04:57am

Himanshu Bhatt

IN October 2009, I had penned in this column my impressions about the state of public housing, citing the foul and decrepit conditions of most residential estates meant for low-income earners.

I had pointed to the Pekeliling flats whose shabby high-rise blocks had stood in ugly contradiction to the modern Kuala Lumpur skyline. There were others like the Kampung Melayu and Rifle Range flats in Ayer Itam, and the Bagan Dalam flats in Butterworth. Most were in such deplorable condition that they required immense physical overhauls – from paint jobs, to pipe and tile replacements, to complete wiring changes.

In particular, maintenance was wanting. Garbage chutes were filthy, lifts commonly in disrepair, clogged drains, rotten pipes and strewn litter. The designs of the buildings seem to have catered more for volume than for healthy living conditions. Natural lighting and air circulation within public passageways were usually poor, and there were far too little recreational facilities and sites.

Is it any wonder that there has been a stigma associated with low-cost housing in Malaysia? And I had wondered aloud how our public housing could have fallen to such shameful levels when, in contrast, Singapore’s mass housing system has been made to work so well.

Indeed, with public housing under the purview of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), low-cost houses in Singapore are characterised by a high degree of cleanliness, community programmes, regular planting and pruning of trees, and meticulous infrastructure.

Well, the Penang government raised some eyebrows last month when it announced that a former division of the HDB had been enlisted to design and help maintain the state’s most ambitious public housing programme yet – the RM2.7 billion Bandar Cassia Affordable Housing Scheme.

Targeted to house a population of 250,000 on what is now sprawling virgin land in Batu Kawan, the project will use the services of Surbana Corporation Pte Ltd, the former building and development division of the HDB.

It would adopt the same eco-friendly and sustainable living features used for acclaimed HDB projects in Singapore. Boasting an impressive man-made river, it would have recreational facilities and amenities never before included in low-cost and low-medium-cost projects in Malaysia.

Indeed, the HDB is said to have the best record for affordable housing in the world. “Why imitate the best when we can bring in the very best?” Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said during the ground-breaking ceremony and unveiling of the designs.

The Batu Kawan project is centred around a 2km “Community Green Spine” with some 40 acres of land with parks and lakes. Bus stops and amenities would be within three minutes walking distance from any residential block.

There will also be sports facilities like badminton courts, swimming pools, football fields and tennis courts. And each phase will be gated and guarded with smart card access systems and secured lift lobbies.

It may sound like a luxury condominium project, and deservedly so. Why should our citizens be deprived of essential facilities, cleanliness and services, just because they are from a lower strata of society?

There was of course expected criticism that the state had entrusted a foreign neighbour. But why should this be a problem when Singaporean companies are being welcomed to invest in the Iskandar region in Johor?

In fact the state government has drawn up a five-year master plan to repair and revitalise its existing 42 public housing estates. But as it was doing this, it hit a rut when it was unable to implement the newly gazetted State Housing Board which would be crucial for its plans to promote and spawn affordable housing.

The board was set up through an enactment passed by the state assembly in 2010. But a special committee to study higher level posts in the federal government decided to postpone appointing any civil service positions in the board, effectively putting it in limbo.

So the advent of a Singaporean HDB-style system and vision must serve as a bold, fresh shake-up of our public housing sector. For in Lim’s own words, “we don’t want to give our people boxes, we want to give them homes.”

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments:

Apart from the problem of mainteance, we should think twice about introducing gated communities for public housing on what is former public or state-owned land.

Gated communities manifest a number of tensions: between exclusionary tensions rooted in fear and protection of privilege and the values of civic responsibility; between the trend toward the privatisation of public services and the ideals of the public good and general welfare; and between the need for personal and community control of the environment and the dangers of making outsiders of fellow citizens. (Snyder and Blakely, 1999:3″

City, Society, and Planning: City
By Ashok K. Dutt, Baleshwar Thakur, University of Akron. Dept. of Geography & Planning, Association of American Geographers. Regional Development and Planning Specialty Group

Gated communities promote the idea of separation and insecurity. In an egalitarian and just world, which we must work towards, there would be little need for such segregation.

We need to identify the root causes fuelling a sense of alienation, deprivation and marginalisation (income inequality being one of them).