I would like to examine a counterfactual. What if, in Singapore, public housing were more tightly controlled by HDB in the following fashion:
- purchase and sale transactions could only be performed with HDB itself,
- prices were controlled so as to preserve only market forces based on location-based desirability to individual buyers while, at the same time, removing the speculative component.
A Counterfactual Public Housing System
The resale price (back to HDB) for a flat would be set according to its type and floor area. Thus, a 1000 square feet four-room flat in Marine Parade would be sold back to HDB for the same amount as a 1000 square feet four-room flat in Pasir Ris. Furthermore, these resale prices would be kept low. (This may be tweaked to account for age and recent upgrading work.) The purchase of flats would be done by sealed-bid auction, with the previously mentioned resale price as the reserve price. (The details of the auction mechanism will be outlined in the Annex.) In addition, if an owner of a HDB flat comes to own any private property in Singapore (through purchase or bequest), that person must dispose of either the HDB flat (to HDB) or the private property.
Due to the low resale prices, there would be no incentive to purchase HDB flats for speculative purposes. Presently, there is a loophole where some foreign nationals (PRs and those with dual citizenships) are essentially able to buy to rent, reducing the strained public housing supply and profiting off the misery of the "flat-less". Measures to plug that loophole will be outlined in the next paragraph. On the other hand, to avoid market distortions where a flat is priced at the same amount as a less desirable one, sale of flats will be done by (country-wide) auction (with a reserve price dictated by the nature of the flat). It is intended that buyers make bids for available flats of all types in all locations so as to eliminate dillemas of whether to participate in an auction for flats of a second choice type or in a second choice location. All this would serve to "defragment" the public housing market and ensure that the premium paid over the reserve price reflects desirability due to location, and does not contain a component pricing potential future speculative profit.
To reduce actual foreign speculative pressure, consider requiring all flat owners holding any foreign citizenships (non-citizens and citizens with dual citizenships) to certify their occupancy of their flats by certifying, in person, every quarter (or some suitable time interval), their occupancy of their flat at their local town council. This will not be onerous as town councils are typically located close by.
The philosophy behind this counterfactual system is that residents derive value from public housing based on the housing space and the location. The actual public housing market, comprising the buyers, is best equipped to price this premium. Hence the auction mechanism. The premium paid over the resale price would reflect the value derived from the flat consumed by the owner over the tenure of residence and, as such, would not be returned when the flat is sold back to HDB.
Implications for Economic Vibrancy and Investment
It follows that without a concomitant increase in prices and without an accompanying fall in wages, lower housing prices will result in higher household savings. (The former two do not appear to follow from lower housing prices.)
The upshot of this is that funds would be available for the enterprising to start businesses. The less entrepreneurial would have funds to invest in those new businesses. With less funds tied up in property, the economic landscape would be fertile enough to encourage new businesses to spring forth and be nourished by the increased availability of funds.
It is not too much of a stretch to project that a number of these new businesses would introduce innovative business models and new uses of technology, thus bringing a new vibrancy to the economy. With this, investment in Singapore will no far less property driven, but rather, innovation led, as befits a knowledge economy.
The counterfactual public housing system I have proposed has a number of positive features. However, the problem is how to get from the present state to this one. In my mind, the way forward entails a number of steps (i) legislate that the divestment requirement for all public housing to take effect in a number of years (as existing current legislation to that effect is not retroactive), (ii) begin a two-speed public housing market where the resale of all new flats will be based on this paradigm and current flats can be sold to other buyers or to HDB at the aforementioned resale price.
Step (ii) will result in a gradual conversion of the public housing market to the aforementioned counterfactual system. In decades to come, as newer, more desirable, flats are rolled out, the prices of current flats will naturally decline due to the greater availability of cheaper flats, as well as their age. Eventually they will be sold back to HDB at the dictated resale price, reducing the share of flats held in the old housing system.
Will this take place? It depends on the priorities of the government and the electorate.
At first glance, it might appear that the use of auctions would punish poorer Singaporeans based on the historical use of auctions for selling collectors' items. However, auctions are a direct mechanism to mark to market. Auctions have been used for certain types of items that are difficult to properly value a priori, such as collectors' items whose market value is uncertain. Homes are similar to an extent. HDB and banks cannot properly assess how much value a flat has to a buyer as work location, residents of friends and family, and a host of other factors contribute to this.
I envision the conduct of regular auctions of all available flats in Singapore with the reserve price on each flat set to the aforementioned resale price. Interested buyers would first register with HDB and then be issued with accounts to bid for flats. They would then place bids for each flat they are interested in.
This is my third attempt. The first attempt at a mechanism is featured at the previous post. It was not satisfactory. The second was online just briefly, but was taken down because I realized that an aspect of the proof of strategy-proof-ness was wrong and it couldn't be fixed. (I found a clear counterexample.) This auction mechanism will stand up easily to scrutiny because it is based on a well-known (and well-studied) family of mechanisms called Vickrey-Clarke-Groves (VCG) Mechanisms.
In the auction, each bid price is intended to be the maximum amount the relevant bidder is willing to pay for a flat of a particular type in a particular location. Bidders will make bids for every type of flat they are interested in. The beauty of VCG mechanisms is that the optimal bidding strategy is for a bidder to truthfully bid the actual maximum value he is willing to pay for a flat, the auction mechanism will not use this information to extract additional revenue from him. This is in contrast to situations where perfect price discrimination is possible and buyers have an incentive to hide information on exactly how much they are willing to pay.
To jump the gun, the allocation portion of the auction seeks to maximize allocative efficiency, which is quantified by the total value of the allocation to the bidders defined by the sum of bid prices for all allocated flats (including unallocated flats which are valued at the reserve price. The pricing portion charges each bidder allocated a flat a price which represents "the social cost to society of him having been allocated the flat". Imprecisely speaking, this social cost typically entails the loss to someone else who would have been allocated a flat, and as such, is typically the bid price of the bidder "next in line" to be allocated a flat (the first among the losing bidders). More accurately, the price charged for each allocated flat is precisely the lowest amount the respective bidder could have bid and been allocated the flat.
Annex: The Allocation Model for the VCG Auction
nj: Number of available flats in category j
maximize Sum[over i and j] vij xij
- Sum[over flat categories j] xij <= 1 for each bidder i except HDB (1)
Sum[over bidders i] xij = nj for each flat category j (2)
The set of constraints (1) mean that each bidder (other than HDB) may be allocated at most 1 flat. The set of constraints (2) mean that all flats are allocated.
One can prove that if the bid prices (other than HDB's) are all not equal (and another non-equal "difference" condition holds), this integer optimization problem can be relaxed to a linear optimization problem and yield the same solution. (This can be easily engineered and implies big computational savings, which will be necessary for quickly producing an allocation and pricing the allocated flats.) Such a scenario can be engineered by requiring minimal bid increments (of say $100) and incorporating random tie breaking by doctoring bids by random values smaller than the bid increment. This practical measure is similar to allocating flats by ballot, but differs in that it first takes allocative efficiency into account.