Saturday, February 12, 2011

Housing affordability of key concern

ASK Mr Chandra Mohan what he hopes for when the Budget is announced next week and he will tell you matter-of-factly: utility and rental rebates.

The 65-year-old, who works in an events firm, lives in a three-room rental flat in Woodlands with his mother and sister, paying about $100 a month.

Because his mother has had a stroke and requires 24-hour care, the siblings have faced financial difficulties in recent years. They had to sell their four-room HDB flat in Sembawang a few years ago.

'If we can get some form of rental-flat or utility rebates, it would help us cope with rising costs,' he said.

In the longer term, the family hopes to own a Housing Board flat again, maybe with the help of grants for needy families.

Families like Mr Mohan's should be at the top of the priority list for measures in the upcoming Budget, said West Coast GRC MP Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development.

Any rebates would be of help and additional housing grants for needy families should be considered, including raising the income ceiling to qualify for them, he added.

Those in the sandwich class are also hoping for measures to help them combat rising housing costs and living expenses. Take civil servant Charan Jaipragas, 26, for example. He recently bought a resale HDB maisonette in Taman Jurong for $495,000 with his fiancee.

Even though they received a housing grant of $25,000 from the HDB, the purchase wiped out their savings. 'Any rebates will help us young households,' he said.

Experts whom The Straits Times spoke to had differing views on whether measures in the Budget would address home buyers, owners or both. Most said the usual staples of property, utility and service and conservancy rebates could be announced.

Some said the Budget could see larger housing grants, perhaps for the lower-income households, and flexibility on who qualifies for the grants.

'The traditional remedies of upgrading of old estates, increasing the supply of HDB flats and sharpening the differential between Singaporeans and PRs (permanent residents) (in terms of benefits given) may again be applied,' said OCBC economist Selena Ling.

KPMG Advisory tax partner Leonard Ong said: 'We hope to see the one-off 40 per cent property tax rebate given for owner-occupied residential properties in the 2009 Budget reinstated in the current Budget.'

Ernst & Young tax services partner Choo Eng Chuan feels, however, that higher housing grants could further fuel the property boom. 'This could make prices rise further, making the situation worsen indirectly,' he said.

Prices of HDB resale flats, which rose 14.1 per cent last year, have hit new records on the back of a recovering economy.

Mr Choo feels that the growing income gap is also a big concern and traditional measures such as rebates for HDB dwellers would be more effective in addressing this divide.

One thing that the Government could do is to perhaps raise the income ceiling to qualify for the Central Provident Fund housing grant, he said.

The ceiling for each household is now $8,000 or $10,000, depending on the type of flat. 'As the economy grows, salaries do get higher, so this is something they could review,' suggested Mr Choo.

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