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A blog about the economy and the Sacramento-area real estate market.

May 2, 2010
Land-locked Singapore shows the way on smart growth


sentossamall.jpg  For several days now I have seen how the other half lives - in Singapore - and it's enviable, everything that SACOG has been talking about for years in Sacramento. Transit ridership is 62 percent of trips here and the goal is 70 percent. This little country has congestion pricing that makes cars entering downtown pay extra. It has incredible public transportation, including a subway that is being expanded. It is developing welcoming people places out of all its riverfront and flood control reservoir properties. It has incredibly beautiful landscaping (this is a tropical climate 85 mile north of the equator), a massive new skyline and construction like you wouldn't believe.

 I've been in lots of interesting conversations about how this city-state of 5 million people houses its people. It's nothing like we do it in the U.S. and California.

Singapore is a rich little country in Southeast Asia - with a 2.2 percent unemployment rate! It has one of the world's largest ports (it looks about 20 times bigger than the Port of Oakland) and is a major Asian financial center. It also does a ton of information technology work and high tech manufacturing. Needless to say, it's incredible to be somewhere that isn't gasping for economic breath and is ramping up again with job growth. They're all about booming here again.

I've had fun asking people tons of questions about their housing. People tell me 80 percent of the population lives in government-built homes. They call it "public housing," and immediately point that it has no negative connotations here whatsoever. The government subsidizes rent to about a third of incomes, though if you want more space it can cost up to 50 percent. Younger people live with their parents until they marry. If they buy a house then the government will give them up to about $11,000 off the purchase price by staying within a couple of miles of their parents.

Nearly all the housing is high-rise, about 20 stories. Almost no one lives in single-family detached homes. And since the population is a mix of Chinese, Indians, foreigners and native Malays the government has an ethnic integration policy for its housing. Every building has a population roughly similar to the ethnic mix nationally. The government is trying to create a society that gets along and doesn't split up into ethnic enclaves. If you want to rent you go along.

Singaporeans buy their houses with a 99-year expiration date. I don't understand this completely, but that's how it's done. One family can't keep passing the house onto relatives. A couple of reporters I talked with were surprised very much to hear that we don't have this in California. If you buy state-owned housing, you also have the ethnic integration policy. If you can afford the more expensive private sector housing you don't.

  singskyline.jpgThis probably sounds incredibly bureaucratic to American ears. But this is a one-party state that does its own thing. Tomorrow, we go to the country's Urban Redevelopment Agency for a presentation on how it's rebuilding Singapore. This is a small island where everything that gets built is part of tearing something else down or working with what's already there. From what I have seen of the lush landscaping, the nice buildings, the amazing shopping malls - this government, as the master developer, has good taste. 

One last nugget: two massive casinos have opened here in recent weeks. They're aimed at foreigners. Singaporeans have to pay $100 to get in - a discouraging barrier. Last night when we toured one of the big casinos the Singaporeans had their own giant room. The place was packed.



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