The ageing of public housing is rightly among the key issues that National Development Minister Lawrence Wong aims to address going forward. This will include the improvement of Housing Board towns built in the 1970s and 80s, like Toa Payoh and Bedok, where the 99-year leases of flats will reach the halfway mark over the next 10 years or so. Indeed, two-thirds of public flats will be 30 years or older by 2020. The HDB heartland cannot look time-worn as the aim is to "meet changing needs... so that Singapore remains an endearing home for everyone", as Mr Wong put it.
There are a number of HDB programmes to effect improvements to existing flats: Lift Upgrading, Home Improvement, Neighbourhood Renewal, Interim Upgrading and Main Upgrading. Drastic change is achieved via the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers), under which entire blocks are torn down and replacement flats offered with fresh leases. HDB is already ramping up its programmes so residents of older flats can enjoy features of newer ones sooner; and the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme will be extended to cover middle-aged towns like Choa Chu Kang, Pasir Ris and Tampines.
As the scale of renewal grows, so will the complexity of the issues thrown up. For example, the pace of work can buoy market values of flats as these decay over time. Using HDB's illustration of how its lease buy-back scheme works, the theoretical tail-end value of a 34-year-old flat, when its lease has only 35 years left, is about 42 per cent of its current market value. Of course, a buoyant market 30 years hence (spurred by, say, economic expansion and population growth) might yield a higher value. However, there's no denying that a flat, as a source of retirement funds, will inevitably depreciate in value over time, with the decline curve sharper for flats aged 40 years and over.
Will this prompt a future demand for Sers flats with fresh leases? There is now strong support for the scheme - 87 per cent approval in 2013 among Sers residents who had moved into new flats. But after two decades of Sers, one can appreciate why it has to be a selective exercise. The higher costs involved are justified by the redevelopment potential of a site - the scope to intensify the use of land and renew the urban environment for significant purposes. Official exertions to help Sers residents negotiate change are considerable. HDB's pledge to "take care of you every step of the way" is merited as the displacement of communities caused by a rebuilding programme can weaken social bonds, a process heightened by the loss of nostalgic icons and visibly changing demographics.
Finding replacement sites nearby will also not be easy for larger groups in ageing estates. These renewal considerations, alongside fiscal challenges, have to be thought through as public housing occupies a vital and unique part of life here.