SINGAPORE: Recently there has been a lot of discussion about how to help the vulnerable, especially those living in public housing.
Many have given their views on what it means to have a home in Singapore and how we can help families with low income lay a better roof over their heads. It is heart-warming to see that there is no lack of passionate champions for the vulnerable.
As a former employee of the Housing and Development Board, I followed these discussions closely. I am intrigued by a suggestion to build larger public rental apartments and to create a larger subsidized public rental housing program for a larger part of the population.
It is not difficult to build more and larger rental apartments. The more fundamental issue is this: what is the best way to allocate the limited quantum of housing subsidies within the government budget?
READ: Can the emphasis on renting help help solve the social housing puzzle in Singapore? A comment
RENT OR OWN?
Some countries prefer to award subsidies in favor of letting. In Hong Kong, for example, about 29 percent of the population live in subsidized public rental housing, with more rent from the open market.
There is little sight of young couples who have a decent house when they are ready to marry, something we have almost taken for granted in Singapore.
We have opted for a different approach to housing here, right from the start of nation building. It is one that emphasizes home ownership as an important pillar of our social compact. Today, more than 90 percent of Singapore residents own their homes, with about 80 percent of Singapore's residents living in HDB flats.
Even among the less affluent in our society – 83 percent of the bottom 10 percent of households in terms of income own a home, and this figure is 87 percent for the bottom 20 percent of households.
The success of our story about public housing is well documented and remains a model that many nations strive for. If we had weighed our rental subsidies, the housing outcomes for Singapore would have been very different.
READ: Too strong an emphasis on homeownership can be at the expense of society. Time for a revision of public housing policy, a comment
MORE HELP FOR THE PROPERTY OF A FLAT
Actually, HDB always offered rental housing with 3 rooms. This was discontinued in 1982.
At that time many existing tenants sold their own three-room flats, because it made more sense financially to do this, given the highly subsidized prices for such new flats. They could also use their CPF savings to pay, instead of paying cash, and at the end of the day they would have to own the flat.
Since then, the government has continued to increase the subsidies for homeownership. Housing subsidies are more generous and also designed to be progressive and fair. Subsidies such as the Additional CPF Housing Grant (AHG) and Special CPF Housing Grant (SHG) are being tested, with lower-income families receiving larger grants.
Effectively, low-income households buying new HDB flats can receive up to $ 80,000 in grants, in addition to the already-subsidized fixed price. Suitable families purchasing HDB resale flats can also receive up to S $ 120,000 in grants.
There are also specific arrangements to help tenants to achieve home ownership, including giving them priority when voting for new flats and additional subsidies under the Fresh Start Housing Scheme.
MUCH STILL TO BE AWARE OF ITS OWN HOME
My feeling is that most rented households still want their own home today. In the past five years, around 3,700 households in subsidized rented housing have moved to home ownership.
Last year we saw a record high of nearly 1,000 of such households that were going to own their homes. This upward trend is a positive development.
I expect many of them to be first-timer households who qualify for substantial rent subsidies, which are usually younger and can take on a larger loan due to the longer term.
But even for households with a second timer living in public housing, the need for home ownership is strong, given the positive reaction to the Fresh Start Housing Scheme.
WE HAVE AN INTEGRATED APPROACH TO HELP VULNERABLE FAMILIES
However, each family has their own journey and we can not rush them to buy a house if they are not ready. Some may need more time to work on stabilizing their finances and family circumstances before they buy a flat, and we must respect that and support them to be ready.
The discussion so far has shown that housing the vulnerable is complex because it is not. just about brick and mortar – the cement of houses is the stability of family relationships. When these split up, while housing support is important, social support is also crucial.
We have seen different views and approaches among social workers on how to provide such support. I would like to suggest some areas where you can concentrate.
Firstly, we need to look at how we can better integrate the various forms of social assistance and intensify the enforcement and support we offer to families in rented housing. Such a business model has yielded some positive results in project 4650, where tenants of two Interim Rental Housing blocks in Bedok South received intensive assistance during their trip to homeowners.
Families in public leasing often face multiple challenges – financial difficulties, unemployment, family conflict and so on. Currently they have to approach different agencies for help with each challenge, and each agency may not have a complete picture of the family.
Guiding tenants to own their home therefore requires extensive coordination between the government and volunteer groups to better understand the challenges that tenants are facing. The different parties have to put together a total picture of the situation of each family.
They also need to agree on a shared approach to help the family so that different types of assistance complement each other and address their challenges holistically.
In this context, I welcome the recent announcement by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Family Development to set up social service nodes in and around rented housing.
Mindset changes are also needed to ensure the success of these social service hubs. . Instead of working in silos, front-line staff who support our rental families should have the opportunity to adopt an integrated approach, where families, not organizations, are central to their work.
READ: Addressing inequality by moving from emotion to action, a comment
IMPROVING PUBLIC RENTAL ARMS
Secondly, there is room to improve the physical environment in public rental blocks. The newer HDB rental blocks, with better ventilation, natural lighting along the corridor and larger, old-fashioned toilets, have better designs and are much more livable compared to older rental blocks. I have seen examples of both. We must therefore speed up the replacement and renewal of older rental blocks with new and better designed ones.
Thirdly, we can do more to integrate rented and sold units within the same block or district. HDB has started to build mixed blocks that contain both rental housing and flats for housing.
But it is disappointing to see negative reactions to this announcement. Some people feared that the rental apartments would devalue the adjacent apartments of the home ownership; others made offensive remarks about the tenants' habits.
READ: Direct interventions, not just social mixing, had to reduce the inequality of housing, a comment
HELP MUST COME FROM ALL US
This brings me to my last suggestion, namely that helping others is not just the job of government agencies. It is up to us all to provide mutual support and care to fellow Singaporeans.
We can expand our skills. Retired teachers have offered to teach children in the homework café in project 4650.
We can also offer our time and energy. The Cassia resettlement team helped older tenants move from their old flat to their new in Cassia Crescent, and continued to be friends with them and help them with their daily needs.
These examples show that ordinary citizens can come together to make an extraordinary difference in helping others.
I have great respect for social workers, public service officials and volunteers who already give their efforts and understanding to others in need. More of us can and should do the same
Chionh Chye Khye is a fellow at the Center for Liveable Cities and was the Deputy CEO (Building and Development) of the Housing and Development Board from 1998 to 2002.