What Hawaii can learn from Singapore and Hong Kong

Viewpoint

There are many interesting takeaways to share from the 40-person delegation of state lawmakers, economists and business people that visited Singapore and Hong Kong last month looking for outside-the-box solutions for housing and transportation solutions for our growing communities.

First and foremost is the commitment to infrastructure-first development. In both Singapore and Hong Kong, transit-oriented development projects are planned meticulously and municipalities make the investment in infrastructure necessary to accommodate any housing development brought to the table. That seems to be the exact opposite of what is done here in Hawaii where infrastructure is often an afterthought.

The second most stunning takeaway visiting both Singapore and Hong Kong is their commitment to a long-term development plan. It didn’t matter whether we were visiting the Housing Authority or a Transportation Authority or private developer, each entity referred, with commitment, to the long-range plans in place to meet the predictable growth demand of their communities.

What seems missing from Hawaii’s state and county governments is a system that cooperates, collaborates and communicates between agencies to execute short-, medium- and long-range community plans. On our trip we observed lockstep commitment to long-range plans that each department accepts as the way forward to meet the needs of the citizenry.

While neither Singapore nor Hong Kong models and their economies of scale can be cut and pasted to fit a Hawaii model, it is truly inspiring to observe interdepartmental agencies, with every inquiry, clearly referring back to community plans that don’t change every four to eight years at the whim of a new administration.

Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF) was inspiring. While some have described it as a Ponzi scheme, it also offers some great takeaways. In Singapore, every working person has 17 percent of their salary collected to go toward three things: homeownership down payment, health care and retirement. Employers contribute 20 percent. Married couples can apply to buy housing and singles must wait until they are 35 regardless of their account balance. Their CPF account balances are used as down payments, and as a result, Singapore enjoys 90 percent homeownership. They manage to keep fees low and financing is easy to access. In round-table wrap-up sessions, contributors wondered if Hawaii’s state employee retirement fund could be a financing vehicle for new homeowners in Hawaii.

Can Hawaii find a development model that is transit-oriented and that meets the needs of our communities? It can be done, but our ways have got to change. We cannot continue to operate each state department in its own silo. The Department of Education must work with the housing authority to plan schools where development is intended. The Transportation Department must communicate with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to create access where new housing would be beneficial.

We saw amazing communities with each meeting all the needs of people who will live there. Schools, senior centers, outdoor spaces, gyms, day care, bike paths, you name it, no amenity unaccommodated. We have the luxury of space in Hawaii to implement some of these great ideas. Our people need housing and would love an opportunity to own their own homes, but it must be approachable. We must have creative solutions for financing. We have to make the down payment requirements more approachable.

Can we inspire our departments to work collaboratively to attack our housing challenges? We can, but we will have to embrace some serious change. So many are inclined to say, that’s just not the way it’s done. I say maybe that’s part of our challenge.

* State Rep. Tina Wildberger is a small-business owner and represents District 11 — Kihei, Wailea, and Makena. She personally paid for the trip to Singapore and Hong Kong. Wildberger can be reached at (808) 586-8525 or repwildberger@capitol.hawaii.gov.