Shoebox Living – Are you a size 7?

Void Decker in his Shoebox Apartment

The Void Decker (bottom right) with friends staying over

Here in central London, particularly within zones 1 to 3 on the tube map, flats are either too small or too expensive, or, in most cases, both. Just like in Tokyo, Hong Kong and many other high density cities. The wife and I have been living in an approximately 45sqm flat for the past year or so. Before that, we stayed over two years in a 35sqm flat. It was primarily the failing condition of the previous flat that prompted us to move, rather than the lack of space.

Thus, I read with bemusement the mini-debate in the local media a few months back, where some members of the public were concerned with the increasing proliferation of so-called ‘shoebox’ apartments in Singapore. It’s terrible, they say, there is poor quality of life. In fact, it’s almost inhuman! Those were the actual words of CapitaLand CEO Liew Mun Leong.

As if the government is not making enough of a mess in public housing, they want it to step in to control the private housing market as well. There were calls by the public and private developers such as CapitaLand for the authorities to restrict the development of these units or to set minimum floor areas.

What an epiphany. We have been living in dumps these 4 years. Life has been utterly miserable. And they don’t even have void decks in this country! I almost rushed out to buy Hallmark thank you cards to send these well meaning folks.

Not, not really, but thanks for the concern. We are happy where we are. In fact, I love it. It would be great to have a bigger place, of course, but that’s like saying it’s great to have a 10,000sqm maisonette with ten bedrooms, a rooftop terrace, gym, swimming pools, tennis courts and a soundproof jam studio thrown in.

I would argue that small spaces bring people together, not just physically but emotionally as well (only if you want to, that is!). Plus, it encourages financial prudence (no way we can fit that exercise bike in here, ma’am!).

Obviously, we should not read too much into Mr Liew’s comments, given his company’s commercial interest in building standard size apartments. But he was also quoted saying “Singapore’s land is very precious and you are wasting your scarce resources” by building shoebox apartments. If we are talking strictly about land allocation, putting couples in 90sqm 4-room flats is hardly a more efficient use of space than in a shoebox unit half that size.

You get the sense that those with strong objections have either never lived in one themselves, or have recurring nightmares of the 1970s when it was typical for large families to cramp themselves into average sized flats. Many of those kids grew up just fine by the way.

The reality is the majority of these shoebox units are near the higher end of the market, with some costing towards a million dollars. So there won’t be many cases of families with kids who couldn’t afford a proper place – they are better off buying cheaper and bigger flats in less popular areas. According to Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan, 80% of the buyers are Singaporeans who presumably are investors looking to rent out. Or it could be singles keen on having their own space. With the restrictions on singles buying HDB flats, trying to control the shoebox unit market is a double whammy on them.

That’s not to say the concerns are not valid. Nobody wants to see shoebox or, worse, micro apartments becoming the norm of Singapore living, but ultimately it is the market that decides. For a start, we could do without sweeping statements on the quality of life of those who actually live in them.

Now the authorities have announced that it’s stepping in to limit the number of such units being developed in suburban areas. The reasons are that “shoebox units do not meet the needs of larger households with more than two members, and are not conducive for couples to have children” and that “there is a need to avoid a situation where shoebox units form a disproportionately large portion of the total housing stock in Singapore”.

Surely, it is up to the market to self-regulate through proper demand and supply? This comes across as yet another attempt by the government at social engineering, however judicious it may be.

Would a policy like this not drive up the prices of shoebox units and further limit the housing choices that singles have? What of those who can’t afford expensive units in the central area? PM Lee has recently called for a review of HDB housing restrictions for singles. Let’s hope this is just a precursor to the relaxation of rules in that area.