Bernard Hickey questions the timidity of the Government's social housing plans. He suggests Mr Key take a leaf out of Mr Lee's book to launch a Houses of National Significance program

Bernard Hickey questions the timidity of the Government's social housing plans. He suggests Mr Key take a leaf out of Mr Lee's book to launch a Houses of National Significance program

By Bernard Hickey

Sometimes it’s worth approaching a tricky nation building problem by asking the question; what would Lee Kuan Yew do?

Watching Prime Minister John Key grapple this week for the umpteenth time with the seemingly intractable problem of Auckland’s lack of affordable housing got me wondering about how others have done it successfully.

Mr Lee, the founder of modern Singapore, achieved a remarkable thing in a few short decades. He built a vibrant, functional and very rich city out of a bunch of war-damaged colonial buildings and a fetid swamp.

Dragging the young nation out of a civil unrest and without any natural resources, one of Mr Lee’s first and major achievements was a massive programme of public housing construction.

Year after year, Singapore’s Government and its version of our New Zealand Superannuation Fund invested in building row upon row of apartment blocks known as HDBs, which are short for Housing and Development Board blocks.

These originally basic apartments lifted Singapore’s young citizens out of unhygienic shanty towns and allowed them the financial room and security to educate themselves and their families.

Singapore's very unified Government, under the direction of one man, coordinated the construction at scale of housing in tandem with well-planned and coordinated transport, schools, shops and playgrounds. It used those economies of scale to keep costs down.

These HDBs are the defining feature of the city state and the bedrock upon which its society is built.

Confident of affordable, safe and well maintained public housing, families were able to save big chunks of their wages and reinvest it in their futures.

More than 80% of Singaporeans still live in them and many have now bought them as their family homes.

I took the opportunity earlier this month while visiting Singapore to take the excellent public transport out from the CBD to visit a few of these blocks and 'Hawker' centres usually based in and around the open ground floors of these HDBs.

The older style ones are open air food courts and fruit and vegetable markets that form the heart of their communities. Retired Singaporeans play checkers on plastic tables alongside kids doing their homework. The newer HDBs are more likely to have 'sky bridge' gardens, sports complexes and air-conditioned mega malls attached.

Mr Key, a former resident of Singapore during his travels as a foreign exchange dealer, has rightly professed in the past an admiration for Singapore's achievements.

In 1966, Mr Lee was in charge of city with more than half a million people living in squatter camps and in over-crowded and unhealthy low-rise buildings. Newly independent from Malaysia and with race riots fresh in the memory, Mr Lee presided over a HDB construction programme to build more than 50,000 units in five years.

Mr Key now faces a housing shortfall in Auckland that has hamstrung the economy, damaged the Government's finances and is the major cause of child poverty in New Zealand - itself another blockage to economic growth.

What's desperately needed is 50,000 new homes in five years.

As Prime Minister, he doesn't have the same authority as Mr Lee did to govern local town planning or force through developments that might be unpopular with some. But Mr Key also has a fresh electoral mandate and control of major transport funding, schools and the health system that most modern Prime Ministers don't have.

So why doesn't Mr Key use the central Government's strong balance sheet with an 'investment-led' approach to fix New Zealand's major infrastructure issue of a lack of affordable housing in Auckland?

His National Government has chosen just the same investment-led and capital intensive approach to addressing Auckland's transport infrastructure deficit. Mr Key's Government has spent billions on Auckland's motorways without batting an eyelid.

This week's announcements of 300 rent subsidies for community groups initially and plans to sell up to 2,000 state homes in the next year in the hope it might spark some new building is painfully timid.

In all the Government's targets and numbers, there was not one saying how many new houses would be built because of the reforms.

Those community housing groups are in no position to pay the NZ$500 million plus implied by those homes' valuations, let alone build the many thousands of new social homes required to meet the current shortages. These groups are still awaiting detail on the terms of the subsidies, the scale of the discounts and whether they have tax-free status before committing themselves.

Even then, they will need to secure finance from banks and others, and find developers and builders to do the work - all in a piecemeal and fragmented way.

This plan might deliver 5,000 new houses in five years if everything works, not the 50,000 that are needed.

Even Mr Key acknowledged this week that the Tamaki development, which is meant to be Auckland's showcase development for new affordable homes, is happening too slowly and is dogged by a disjointed approach.

He's even talked about creating a new urban development authority to do the job.

Mr Key could take a leaf out of Mr Lee's book and launch a Houses of National Significance (HONS) programme to match its Roads of National Significance programme (RONS). New Zealand could do with a few HONS to match the HDBs that Mr Lee built.


This article was first published in the Herald on Sunday and is here with permission.

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There was another Mr Lee - who built houses for the poor - including Mr Key's mother - in New Zealand

There is a BIG difference between Mr Lee and Mr Key. Mr Lee is a Doer and Mr Key is a Sitter....he sits on his hands.
Mr Lee follows Mr Deng saying "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice". ie Both Goverment and Private forces can built houses as long as it solves the problem.
Mr Key believes only white  cats catches only market forces can solve problems, the classic neo-liberal excuse for letting your rich friends/donors make money out of everything.
Mr Lee is an interventionist, Mr Key is a non-interventionist. Mr Lee will intervene and change market signals to the extend of rapidly changing rules and regulations to achieve the desired results. As an example....Singapore property prices has seen a 30% decrease in the past two years after an almost 100% increase the previous 5 years....
Mr Key will not intervene but blame "market forces" or "RMA" as the reason for his he cannot and will not upset the status quo of "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry "
Note : There are two Mr Lee mentioned above but in fact are one.

Totally agree.

Totally agree

Spot on 

Dont be silly BH, this would cost money to do, lets just import lots of waiters and chefs...

I always enjoy comparisons with Singapore. There are several other differences between Singapore and NZ that are never mentioned.
1. Singapore is a dictatorship. Sure, there is an "opposition" party, but they don't/can't oppose very much. Listen to the Singaporean equivalent of parliament question time. The opposition puts questions very politely and indirectly to the government. Political satirists must be extremely careful in making jokes about the government, or risk being jailed. 
2. Singaporeans are used to conforming and doing as they are told. There is compulsory military service for males. There is a strong sense of family and perhaps the Chinese ideal of the community being more important than the individual is still prevalent. One of the costs to all this is the arts and sports. Sure, there are plenty of graded piano players among the middle class, but no Eleanor Cattons, Lydia Kos or Lordes. On the other hand, crime is almost 0 in Singapore and it is one of the safest societies in the world. All of this is quite different from NZ, where the rights of the "individual" are the only important thing.
3. The Singaporean government is very smart. They actively recruit high quality people into the government. Many of their politicans have been educated overseas and have international perspectives. New Zealand has a con man for a PM, very good at what he does - convincing people to vote for him, dodging all criticism, a quick thinker, trimming costs here and there - but no long term vision or any other interest in the future of the country.
4. That old cliche, location, location, location. Singapore has the world's second busiest port, is located in close proximity to other countries in Asia, etc., etc. It is also surrounded by potential enemies and has to be prepared to defend itself. New Zealand will always be isolated, can't really afford to defend itself, and relies on Australia and USA coming to its rescue if any trouble arose.
5. Singapore is built on slave labour. With a population of about 5 million, about 1 million people are labourers from India, Philippines, and Indonesia. These people work for peanuts and there is no such thing as workers' rights, worker safety, minimum wages, maximum hours of work, etc. No Singaporean is going to work in dangerous conditions on construction sites, roading works, or sweep the streets when there is a ready supply of cheap labour from India. And nannies from Philippines to clean the house 7 days a week. 
On the flip side, New Zealand has natural resources (land, water, food, energy, comfortable climate). Singapore gets its water from Malaysia, consumes enormous electricity generated from natural gas from Indonesia and Malaysia and imports all its food. Very precarious to be so reliant on other countries for its continued existence. Also, the pressure of daily life in Singapore, and the stress of its citizens, is much higher than in NZ. 
Singapore is a great country to visit or to live for a while. There are good examples to be seen and excellent lessons to be learned. But there are social differences, too. Much as I dislike the way NZ has changed from being an equitable society to one in which each person only cares about him/herself, NZ is still the best country in the world to live, if you can afford to buy a house here.

What is the point of this post? It appears to be almost dismissive of the focus of Bernard's opinion piece.
Yes, S'pore is different to NZ and yes, they have their own ways of doing things. However, that does not suggest that we cannot look at and potentially adopt the positive aspects of S'pore. It is quite possible that it would benefit NZ and many people immensely. S'pore does have a rentier class who do alright (thank you very much) but its public housing system creates stability and allows people to maxiize their potential. 
On this website, I have highlighted this before in the case of Japan. The public housing system has always been an option for Japanese who don't want their own home. It has also been a backstop for low-income earners, solo families, the elderly the disadvantaged, and even foreigners. Similar to S'pore, public housing helps people survice with an empahsis on community. And the reality is, Japanese who live in public housing have not suffered the deterioration in property value compared to the individual home owner (falling home prices was a by-product of the Japanese bubble and not the basis of speculation as many people would believe). 
The problem for NZers is that they don't consider this "out of the box" thinking. And they're right to some extent. However, the construction of high-density housing in central Auckland in the 2000s was hardly innovative in its utility objectives. It was more of a scramble for short-term gain from the developer, financiers, and purchasers. Comparatively, S'pore is far more successful in making it work for all. 

My parents NZ generation got it.

Once again, I don't think this is Benard's point. The state housing system built in the existing paradigm might have its place in smaller cities, but S'pore-style developments don't make much sense in Kaitaia or Whangarei where suburbs with high incidences of state housing already exist. As for Auckland, it is clearly different.
What is important to remember is that high-density, state driven public housing works in S'pore & Japanese cultures because people understand the need to get along. They have a greater sense of how to live harmoniously in these kind of communities. For Kiwis, it would take a shift in thinking away from a more territorial mentality. 

I am curious - does your advocacy of Japanese and Singaporean solutions, recognise the fact that the crucial contribution to affordability market-wide (of sorts) is that there is no private sector, free market SITE ownership and capital gains?
In Singapore, this applies to ALL land. In Japan, it applies to those sites (abundant in quantity) that the State compulsorily acquired decades ago, and has operated them on a capital-cost-plus basis ever since. Of course this helps enchor the entire property market downwards, which is probably Japan's big secret of stability.
They have had ONE boom and a long, slow unwinding - in contrast to Anglo property markets that go straight back into the next bubble after the last peak has done whatever turning down that it is going to.
What is it with the lefties of convenience who leave out this crucial factor, as if they are not lefties at all who care about people, but the worst kind of Gordon Gecko capitalism enablers, advocating all the details EXCEPT the State ownership of sites, which happens to be the crucial thing that makes the whole "solution" valid at all? The result would be of course to deliver fatter capital gains than ever, to private sector site owners. I don't see the words "compulsory acquisition" anywhere in Bernard's article and I would suspect that you too never use them. 

Maybe he can sell the houses to shanghai penguin, and the economic benefits can flow on through the economy.  Then with the extra income from the sale he will be able to afford to lower the top tax rate, which will trickle down through the economy. 

There is a lot that Singapore does much better than NZ and housing is one example, (another is the restrictions on owning a car suplemented by excellent public transport). Could their apartment housing work here? Where it has been tried in the west  such as the UK housing estates it has been an abject failure becoming crime ridden ghettoes.
Is this because Singaporeans have a more community, family minded house proud approach than others. (No NIMBYs up there) or is it because they are so severe on crime. Personal experience says its the former and as a result Bernard's idea won't work in NZ.

OK. Is it possible for NZ culture to become more community focused and family oriented so that we can actually live together in high-density apartments? I have lived in such a place in Osaka City: 10 mintues bike ride to the Central Station; 7-minutes walk to the nearest subway: 8 minutes bike ride to Osaka Castle Park. The build quality of the apartment was far superior to what is on offer in Auckland (even though it was built in the 80s); the available space was larger than most apartments in Auckland (72 square meters); and it was cheaper than what I could pay for an equivalent apartment anywhere in Auckland.
The benefits far outweighed any self-importance or barriers that I had to being considerate to others. 

But the crucial factor in Japan, is direct government operation in the urban land market. If you simply put the on-the-appearance-of-it policies in place without government compulsory acquisition of sites long since) all you will achieve is Vancouver level apartment prices AND site capital gains to the private owners.
That of course might just be the objective of all the dishonest advocacy that is out there on this subject. 

Better for Mr English to concentrate on home ownership.  Spend his efforts and our dollars there.  About 90% would work wonders.


If you had ten apples Steven. And then I took one away.  You would have 90% left.

Sorry but I dont understand your context/point.


Spend our dollars how?
Subsidies on the housing-demand side simply capitalise straight into higher house prices again.
For an allegedly specialist finance and economics website, this one is incredibly useless on this subject given the years that this country has been discussing and arguing about it and the numerous simple economics ABC's that are well understood by anyone with half a brain - such as the one I just stated.

Fair point Phil but your abuse is unrelated and unneccessary. 
Bills effort and our money should be directed  to supply.
Build new dwellings, ensuring they are extra on what is happening already and sell them.  Why rent?
Eliminate accommodation suppliment for rental and  divert the one billion pa to building.

Sorry, my abuse was not directed at you - people coming to NZ's foremost finance and economics website should expect to be getting far more education on this issue in 2015 than what they are. 
The problem with using taxpayers money for "building" is that it does not change the LAND rationing cause of system-wide housing unaffordability.
Hong Kong is plenty built-up and its median multiple is around 16. Every median multiple 3 city has a density around 1/20 that of Hong Kong.
The evidence out there in real world prices suggests to me that the more you stack people up in boxes, the MORE you can rip them off in nominal dollars for their housing costs - density is NOT a substitute for land consumption in achieving affordability. Unless you abolish freehold title, use compulsory acquisitions, have the government operate as a major landlord on a capital-cost-plus basis, or maybe heavily tax land (I don't know where this has been tried).
Winston Churchill's famous speech advocating land taxes is an education in itself:
His ideas never got past the House of Lords, surprise, surprise. 
But it is obvious that unimpeded supply of land for urban growth, keeps land values so low that even the 1/4 acre paradise can be systematically affordable. But the evidence is that left to themselves, people's overwhelming preference is for around 1/8 of an acre. 
Your suggestion for spending taxpayer's money to resolve the issue, would best be applied to infrastructure for growth, not to the construction of buildings. Councils are saying "we can't afford any more infrastructure" - they are charlatans anyway, because expansion of infrastructure capacity in existing built areas is MORE expensive than for greenfields growth - then the government should subsidise the cost of infrastructure anywhere that a developer is prepared to provide sections at a price that reflects minimal uplift over initial rural purchase values plus costs of development. That would resolve the housing affordability problem. It all comes back to the land and how much has to be paid for it. 

Been living in SG for the past few years, and have the following observations:
- Yes, "almost" a dictatorship.  But look at what you can achieve (when you are not spending 99% of your time arguing and polishing your image, Key).  Key is busy selling the country off to his banker mates piece by piece. The exact opposite of Singapore where Singapore's interests are protected from foreigners in a huge number of ways.
- When housing (ones most basic need) is fulfilled without being a rort, people are "free".  Debt servitude to banks is no way to live one’s life. Freedom is not slaving for 40 years to "finally" be the owner of a crap 3 bedroom leaky, cold, falling apart house. The state must fulfil a role here, and it not be left to greed of the people or the banks.
- Auckland is way more expensive to live in.  Consider that for moment.  How small is Singapore?
- Slave labour is not slave labour if the person willingly wants to do the job. Yes there is no minimum wage, but no one is holding a gun to the people from poorer countries either, they can leave at any time.
- Don’t get me started on Auckland weather.

Of course your point about how small is Singpore, is pretty important, is it not?
There are really only two solutions to housing affordability issues.
One is the "use all that space you have got" approach - which is precisely what kept housing affordable in NZ for decades, and in the entire Anglo New World and most of western Europe, for decades. 
The other is to be found in pragmatic countries that do not HAVE space. And it is government ownership of urban land, something that mysteriously is not mentioned by the likes of Mr Hickey looking at the form from the ground up and failing to see why Singapore ends up relatively affordable, but the same thing being tried in any Anglo property rights market such as Vancouver, merely delivers fatter-than-ever site value gains to the private sector owners. 
And he is meant to be an economics writer?

Have you forgotten already we had a perfect solution put forward by way of an Auckland Unitary Plan.   We were going to go up and find about 250-300 sq. meters of space in between existing houses in some designated /permitted areas of the city/suburbs.  This unitary plan was not a plan created overnight, it was in the malking/planning for a long time i.e it was a very well thought out plan. 
You try phoning the Councils Unitary plan help desk and ask them when this unitary plan will get operative- see what they say and then tell us BH where would you suggest John Key find  a spot to build these Singapore style low cost high rise apartments?  I will be curious to know.
  Look at any working liveable city- Sydney, London, San Francisco, Melbourne etc- what have they done in the past- exactly what our Auckland Unitary plan came up with in, albeit in a very much milder form.  Yet we came out and objected hard enough to scare the planners who were the architects of the AUP.

As I am saying in my comments above, eg my reply to notch immediately above, when you adopt policies that ape the FORM of Singapore, but leave the private owner of the sites free to gouge to the maximum, you end up not with Singapore's relative affordability (and Tokyo is somewhat of a comparable case) but you end up with those "working livable cities" Sydney, London, San Francisco, Melbourne, Vancouver etc with house price median multiples of 9+
Regardless of the steady shrinkage of average home size in new developments. 

Really, Bernard?
"As Prime Minister, he doesn't have the same authority as Mr Lee did to govern local town planning or force through developments that might be unpopular with some"
The Public Works Act is still extant. One of the reasons the government didn't get screwed over by landowners when the government  were the country's biggest property developer was they carried that act in their back pocket wherever they went. The basic proposition was "willingly accept a 20%-50% premium on what your land is worth or we will compulsorily acquire it with no premium"
The Special Housing Accord Act allows plan changes to be fast tracked and I am picking that no council in the land would be precious about urban form and design when the government was willing to pick up large chunks of the infrastructure tab.
Any government that was so inclined could start the programme tomorrow. C'mon, Bernard, we are talking the government here - they make the rules.

And the powers of compulsory acquisition under the Public Works Act are still extant, are they not? 
Doesn't it say a lot that no-one above advocating Singapore as a policy guide, mentions this ingredient as THE vital factor in the whole thing in Singapore? In fact it is not so much compulsory acquisition there, as the State having retained all land ownership in the first place. There are no site capital gains to private sector owners empowered by Plans and zonings. 

Bernard wants 50,000 slums built in Auckland...
...because that is all central government is capable of building.
The quicker, easier solution is to remove 100,000 from Stop immigration, give incentives for businesses to expand or relocate elsewhere.  If Auckland can't cope send it's growth elsewhere...

Chris_J it is only your Anglo centric experience of state housing that makes them slums. It is not necesarily that way.
Singapore state housing doesn't go to the most 'needy' it goes to the most deserving. That is one critical point.
Secondly these Singaporean houses are for sale not rental. Although I believe that land ownership is always retained by the Singaporean state which has the advantage that they can always densify without NIMBY complaint.
Another critical point would be the government can subcontract the whole process out to private tender so it is not central government building slums. The state provides the public infrastructure and possibly compulsory land acquisition -although in Auckland's case maybe some of this is just densification of existing state housing.
The issue then resolves around 'contract theory', how to get the interests of the housing provider/ the developer to match the wider public/ the 'states' interest?
My suggestion is that the state negotiates with a goodly number of developers to provide the '50,000' affordable houses. That in each 'development' the state provides a package of transport, health, education and other public amentities. Further that in each package there is a certain proportion that the developer must meet the states requirements of affordability, size... but there is another proportion that the developer is free to sell regardless of these contractual constraints.
This gets around the slum problem. The developer cannot profit from his free to sell proportion if they build crap 'future slums' in the 'state housing proportion'. It also gets past the problem of what does the state know about property development by subcontracting that issue out to the private sector.  
Maybe someone else can think of a better 'contracting' system to align the interests of all parties better?

I'm  not sure I agree with this. Developers who build quality property are no different to a respected "brand". Yes, that requires a corporate mission that is sincere and that stakeholders want to aspire too. Japan learnt that over the years and the quality of construction there has improved significantly. Case in point is Sekisui House, which is not high density housing, but probably one of the most efficient producers of quality housing in the world. 

Brendon, you say:
"...Although I believe that land ownership is always retained by the Singaporean state which has the advantage that they can always densify without NIMBY complaint..."
Your context is slightly ambiguous, but if you mean ownership of ALL land in Singapore (not just the public housing developments) you are the first on this thread to state the bleedin' obvious about why these policies work in Singapore and they do NOT in Anglo property rights markets.
But you really should have emphasised this. 
I say it is so immoral for public subsidy money to go to anything where a zero-sum rent is captured as a result of that subsidy, that the voting public needs to decide whether the social good being served justifies compulsory acquisitions of considerable amounts of land. And this also needs to be "NOT at current values". Government site ownership in the success examples of Japan and Singapore goes back decades, to when it cost the government virtually nothing to assume ownership of those sites. The correct time to do this, is ahead of the city's growth. Compulsorily acquire the greenfields land that will be earmarked for this use as the city grows in future decades and centuries.
The logical place for this now, is on rail routes where transit-oriented development is intended. These developments NEVER end up "affordable" otherwise. 
"Planning" as a discipline really should be all about making sure desirable things can be done affordably in decades time - as Alain Bertaud points out. I believe it used to be more focused on this. This is the reason why some arterial roads had no buildings allowed to be built close to the road frontage - space was left for future widening. Now it seems to me to be all about "how can we deliver the maximum possible price-gouge powers to incumbent land owners"? And "how can we ensure intractable future infrastructure crises by leaving no space for expansion or even efficient access for maintenance"?

Phil good points. I wouldn't disagree with any of that.

I was born and raised in Singapore. Lived there in public flats (purchased with a mortgage) all my life until I moved to Auckland.
The public housing scheme in Singapore wouldn’t work here for several reasons:
1) The Singapore government used the Land Acquisition Act to acquired huge mass of land at low value since 1967. For a long time, compensation was based on pre-development value rather than market value. Cheap land and a blank canvas to work with, so to speak. How will this be achieved here?
2) An authoritarian system with a compliant population. The press and media are tightly controlled and generally echo what the government wants promoted.
3) All public housing flats are on 99-year leases. One still has to take a loan to buy a unit – which can be as long as 30 years. So I’m not sure why you would think there’s no debt to service? Or to quote Bernard: “were able to save big chunks of their wages and reinvest it in their futures.”
4) This type of high-rise, high density, close proximity living is not something everyone can get used to in NZ. I have been here 15 years and have NEVER considered living in an apartment here.
My question is: who are you building these flats for (if you are talking 50,000 new houses in 5 years, it will have to be some sort of high-rise, high-density buildings)? Singapore has a population of 5.5 million, Auckland - 1.5million. Ultimately, will these be affordable, safe and well-maintained public housing?

WL the pre-development value that the Singapore government purchased the land plus the legitmate costs for whatever improvements made -infrastructure basically should be the market value. Anything else would be unearnt profit and why would a government want to profit from the citizens they serve? The only reason I can think of is it would allow them to give tax cuts or spending increases to favourable groups?
This is the dirty little secret of the whole housing affordability debate in NZ. At any point our government could do what Singapore did and use a Land acquisition ACt to acquire a huge mass of land at low value (farm prices).
NZ has oodles of land that this could be done, especially around popular places like Christchurch and Tauranga. Auckland is a little difficult because it is mostly built out to about the 30km radius mark, but there is some places that with better transport links might work. There are other options for Auckland, it has an enourmous resource in the form of state housing suburbs. A lot of this being one house to 800sqm so could easily be intensified without going to the extremes of Singapore apartment blocks.
Our current government is treating its citizens as being stupid when they say the only option to return NZ back to affordable housing costs is for Councils to stop restrictive zoning so developers can access farmland at competitive prices when they have the power to do that directly to expand the state housing stock, some of which they could sell/lease at cost to its citizens.

Brendon. Up to a point, in the early years perhaps. But up till 1988, the government was still using the Land Acquisition Act of 1967 to acquire land while paying compensation based on 1973 land prices - almost 20 years of acquisition using land prices based on a year depressed by the oil crisis. By 1985, the government owned 76% of land in Singapore. How would any government here be able to do that and get away with it?
NZ has land, I agree. Auckland has a land size almost similar to that of the whole of Singapore but only 1.5 million people. Which is why I disagree with going down the high-rise, high-density public housing pathway. I believe the government/council have done some of what you have mentioned - higher density state housing in the form of terrace houses - in Three Kings, Avondale, Mt Albert (areas I am aware of).
I’m not sure if it’s timidity, a lack of political will or a lack of foresight. It’s easy to say take a leaf out of Singapore’s successful public housing but being able to implement it under different political, social and cultural conditions is a whole different matter.