The Pekeliling Flats, one of KL’s first high-rise housing projects, are in the process of being demolished. Photo: Bryan Chang.

Housing has become a hot topic for Malaysians, particularly the urban population. Gen Y workers – sometimes dubbed “the homeless generation” – are finding themselves priced out of the market. Yet despite the staggering costs, home ownership is still part of the Malaysian dream – even when all that remains is a “bank lelong” sign. Is this because we feel like there are no other options? A recent talk hosted by #BetterCities, “Housing Vs Habitat”, focused on this question.

According to the National House Buyers Association (HBA), the average price of a condominium unit in the Klang Valley is RM500,000. Buyers need to have a monthly household income of between RM10,417 and RM13,889 to afford such properties. In reality, the monthly household income in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor are RM8,586 and RM7,023 respectively.

The two speakers at #BetterCities Talks, Lilian Tay (Senior Principal at VERITAS Architects) and Prof Clarence Shubert (former Urban Advisor for UNICEF), were there to offer their perspective on housing – especially the concept of social housing. As property prices rise, could social housing be a viable and affordable solution? What are the design and policy aspects that local council, developers and architects can look into?


As property prices rise, could social housing be a viable and affordable solution?


In the 1980s, the National Housing Policy aimed to provide accessible and affordable housing for Malaysians, particularly those in the lower income group. Private sector developers are still obliged to meet a 30% low cost housing quota if their projects exceed five acres. However, these policies do not always translate well in reality: enforcement varies since land matters are a State purview. Furthermore, social housing tends to have the negative connotations of “low cost” housing, located in crime-ridden areas with poor public transportation.

“We have a find a better word than low-cost housing to describe social housing. Maybe it’s superficial, but it can change how we view social housing, how we design related policies and how we treat the residents,” says Lilian Tay. VERITAS architects, together with MBPJ is currently working on a project to rehabilitate the Maju Jaya flats in Kampung Medan by making minor changes to the design and functionality of the flats.

“We had a list of problems that required attention and when we made recommendations to the local council, we focused on basic things,” says Lilian. For example, we noticed that there is a lack of open spaces for children to run around because the courtyard is used as a haphazard motorbike parking spot. So, we proposed a secure and designated parking spot for motorbikes that would free up the courtyard. We also proposed new play areas at the first and third floor and bridge decks.”

Problems also magnified in Maju Jaya flats when it rained. The flats did not have proper awnings so the rain water always seeped in and there was no covered area at the car drop-off point. To tackle the first problem, VERITAS architects recommended fixing the leaks with aluminum window hoods and for the second problem, proposed a covered entrance lobby that would minimize the prospect of getting drenched in the rain.

When it comes to social housing, location and accessibility is also very important. In her talk, Lillian referenced one of KL’s more famous social housing projects: the Pekeliling flats. The flats were built in the 1960’s and were one of the oldest low-cost housing projects (and high rise housing designs) in the city. But when the flats fell into a state of disrepair and the residents were re-located to make way for the buildings’ demolition, their new housing in Bukit Jalil made it hard for some to get to their schools and places of work.

#BetterCities Talks at Menara Bata, PJ Trade Centre. Photo courtesy of #BetterCities.

Professor Clarence Shubert, former urban advisor for UNICEF, is a firm believer in participation from the vulnerable groups like migrant workers and single parent households when designing social housing. “Often, social housing and its environment do not meet the requirements of the target groups especially in terms of security, transportation and access to job. When you encourage community participation in social housing, you do more just provide a shelter. You enable them to be confident and take pride in the environment.”

One social housing project that lives up to this principle is the Kampung Improvement Programme in Surabaya, Indonesia, which has won several architecture and planning awards. This project makes a case for affordable and sustainable method of transforming high-density urban informal settlements into livable neighbourhoods. This was achieved through public funding as well as mobilizing the community’s own resources.

The city of Surabaya upgraded the ‘hardware’ or the infrastructure by adding footpaths, drainage, water and sanitation. But for visitors here, one striking element is its cleanliness and abundance of greenery. This is because small trees and plants are set in pots or in specially constructed borders and tended by the families, with their own money.


“When you encourage community participation in social housing, you do more just provide a shelter. You enable them to be confident and take pride in the environment.”


Another notable example from overseas is a housing cooperative now called Greenbelt Homes in Maryland, USA. This was built in the 1950’s for low-income families and designed as a social experiment. The first 885 residences were chosen not just based on their income but willingness to participates in community organization. The citizens have since formed a cooperative to manage everything from a nursery to a movie theater, and the project sets a high standard for community living.

“We should not look at housing merely from the perspective of ownership of a property, but ownership from a sense of belonging and responsibility to a place i.e. your neighborhood,” says Goh Sze Ying, lead at #BetterCities. As the various anecdotes showed, our housing problems often run deeper than the mortgage.

Too often, we assume that housing or property is only a physical need when it is actually also a psychological need. How we feel about the surroundings, how willing we are to improve conditions and how invested we are in an area: these are the factors that differentiate a house from a home.

Watch highlights from #BetterCities Talk Series: Housing Vs Habitat here.