Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loss of flat leads to even more problems

ABOUT two in 10 residents who seek help from their MPs over housing issues go on to sell their flats prematurely, landing them in even greater trouble.

Motivated by the need to raise funds after losing their jobs, suffering a pay cut, or needing cash urgently to pay off debts, they subsequently face problems trying to secure a new home.

They stay with relatives and friends, with some making void decks and beaches their sleeping quarters.

This was the profile painted by a dozen MPs The Straits Times spoke to yesterday on the plight of this group that was highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech in Parliament on Thursday.

Calling it a 'serious problem' and one of the key reasons for the long queues for rental flats, Mr Lee said that a way must be found to address the situation.

Credit counsellors, social worker veterans and the MPs said that while the numbers have not gone up since the problem surfaced about five years ago, the fact that it has persisted is worrying.

Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob sees more than the usual average of two in 10 cases. Her figure is around

50 per cent of housing cases, said the Jurong GRC MP. 'They just want rental flats as a way out,' she said.

Ms Florence Lim, a social worker and the director of Covenant Family Service Centre in Hougang, said: 'We see a few such cases every week.'

Some are young couples spending beyond their means and racking up massive credit-card debt.

'People just throw caution to the wind. A newlywed couple will buy a five-room flat. They haven't even started a family or thought about other contingencies,' said Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee.

Others have been working for years but suddenly get retrenched, or suffer a pay cut because of job restructuring.

School bus driver Li Ah Ba, 62, is among them. He could not work as well at night and switched from a 40-seater bus to a 10-seater one for safety reasons.

His pay shrank from $1,500 a month to $1,200, and he found himself turning to loan sharks to feed his family of four. They eventually sold their five-room Sembawang flat to repay their debts.

A third group comprises those who have lost money in gambling, said the head of counselling from Credit Counselling Singapore, Mr Lim Cheng Boon.

'These debtors ask if we can help to ask the bank for an extension on their loans so they can have time to sell their flats,' he said.

While creditors cannot claim their HDB flats, many debtors end up putting their flats up for sale anyway, out of desperation.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah even recalled a case where a couple sold their flat to help pay their children's debts. The children refused to let their parents stay with them after that, she said.

Experts say selling one's flat to stave off debt is usually not a good idea. They might end up homeless because of the Housing Board's requirement of a 30-month debarment period before sellers can apply for a rental flat.

There is also the issue of long queues for such flats - the average waiting time is six months and 1,600 families are in the queue. About 44,000 families are currently housed in rental flats, or 5 per cent of all HDB households.

What can be done? Top of the list is financial education for these Singaporeans to live within their means.

When buying a house, one should try to ensure that the monthly instalments can be covered by Central Provident Fund and not cash, Credit Counselling's Mr Lim said. The loan instalment should be no more than 40 per cent of household income.

Cutting out red tape or pushing certain 'really compassionate' cases up the rental flat queue is another way, said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad.

Part-time debt collector Ronnie Ong lost his flat in a divorce two years ago. His wife sold the Toa Payoh flat and received 90 per cent of the proceeds. Since then, Mr Ong, 59, has spent his nights either in void decks, his brother's van or his friend's office.

Downgrading may be an option for some families, but only if they can cover their debts first and have enough for a down payment for another flat. The new flat will often have to be a much smaller one, in a far-flung town with lower prices. But that's better than not having a roof over their heads, said Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa. He said: 'The bottom line is, your house is a shelter for you and your family. It is not something you should just monetise.'

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