Housing Lessons for India from Hernando De Soto and Singapore

How to upgrade slums and provide public housing in megacities is still an unsolved puzzle, yet a few key theories have emerged.  I just came across an opinion piece where Sanjeev Sanyal compares two divergent models for slum upgrading: Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and Singapore’s Housing Development Board.

India Public Housing Estate

His piece, from July 2010, was written after the government of India recruited de Soto to provide inputs into an ambitious housing scheme.  Instead of only following de Soto’s advice Sanyal believes India should follow China’s lead in investigating the Singaporean housing model for India’s cities.  Although he warns:  “I know that Singapore’s public housing policies cannot be blindly applied to India, but there are some important principles that are universal and worthy of consideration.”  Read a few of his ideas below:

  • Clear property rights are very important for creating a sense of ownership. However, note that there is a big difference in the Singaporean approach and that of Hernando de Soto. The latter is in favour of regularising squatter rights whereas the Singaporeans preferred to wipe the slate clean using public acquisition of land. From the Singaporean viewpoint, regularising squatter rights would reward squatting and ultimately undermine the very basis of property rights.
  • Public housing may be partly subsidised but it should not be too cheap — and never free. Instead, there is a housing ladder which starts with cheap rentals and ends in high-end condominium apartments like those in the Pinnacle complex. In other words, the urban poor are not seen as a static group in need of handouts. The underlying assumption is that people have aspirations and they will work hard and climb the ladder quite quickly if given the chance. This is very different from de Soto’s world of small holdings and micro-finance, where the poor improve their situation in tiny incremental steps. Perhaps the difference in world-view reflects the difference between the rapid growth experience of Asia and the slow growth of Latin America.

Singapore HDB Flats

  • Management of the “commons” is critical. Thus, the Singaporean approach invests very heavily in common amenities, public transport, maintenance and so on. Residents of HDB estates are made to pay a small management fee every month. Similarly, every effort is made to cluster economic and social nodes within each HDB estate. Even informal sector activities like “hawker centres” are designed into the public housing system. Again, this is very different from de Soto’s approach that focuses on private ownership of property and largely ignores the commons.
  • Real estate laws are transparent and evenly applied by a quick legal system. This is a necessary corollary of properly defined property rights. This is one area where the Singaporeans and Hernando de Soto would strongly agree with each other.

Lima Slums

In the end Sanyal notes that “The purpose of this article is to point out that there is an ‘Asian model’ for thinking about public housing and slum upgrade.”  However, Singapore’s HDB model may not be the most appropriate for India to adopt as a whole nation, because public housing, like so many other lessons in urban planning is always context dependent.

Read more about the India’s ambitious housing initiative from the Times of India.

– Melissa


One comment

  1. guillermo padilla

    es importante considerar la apropiación del espacio, el ir construyendo la vivienda, los servicios urbanos, participar en la construcción de equipamiento, logra que las relaciones sociales mas fuertes y la participación ciudadana marca la pauta para el crecimiento económico lo cual ayuda la certeza jurídica de la propiedad.
    contrario a llegar a un habitat urbano extraño para la persona que lo usa y origina una desapropiación del espacio, generando los problemas sociales.

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