Thursday, August 30, 2012

Singles don't expect same chance as couples

Straits Times: Wed, Aug 29

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong may have hinted at the National Day Rally that singles will soon be allowed to buy new flats from the Housing Board (HDB) - but singles are not holding their breath.

While they welcomed the prospect of having access to brand new, subsidised flats and not just being confined to the resale market, they do not expect to be put on a level playing field with married couples.

"Will we actually get the same chance as couples? Or just delegated the flats that they don't want, or the projects that are undersubscribed?" wondered Mr Heng Chin Chuan, 34.

The television producer and part-time lecturer lives with his parents. With his $3,500 to $4,000 monthly income, private property is out of his reach, and a resale flat a stretch.

In fact, observers predict that given the HDB's longstanding goal of using public housing to encourage marriage and child-bearing, the policy change for singles will come with many caveats.

HSR Property Group special adviser Donald Han said: "Singles may be able to join the queue to buy new flats for the first time, but they will be put at the back of the queue."

He predicted that singles will be allowed to buy only three- room or smaller flats, and perhaps only in certain areas, such as the less popular non-mature estates.

There is a precedent: Before 2001, the HDB allowed singles to buy resale flats of only three- room or smaller size, and only in towns outside the central area.

The minimum age for a single to buy any HDB flat has always been 35. Singles above that age are allowed to buy any resale flat, and those earning $5,000 or less a month are eligible for a cash grant of $15,000 and an HDB loan.

Singles bought 3,972 HDB resale flats last year, 16.1 per cent of the total.

SLP International research head Nicholas Mak said it is possible that the HDB will sell new flats to singles at a marked-up price to what couples pay.

When a couple buys a Build- to-Order (BTO) flat, the discounted price enjoyed is the HDB's subsidy for two Singaporeans. "So if a single can buy at the same price, he or she is enjoying a double subsidy," pointed out Mr Mak.

He said new HDB flats are still a scarce commodity, with new projects in mature towns still oversubscribed. This may give rise to public backlash over allowing singles access to BTO flats.

It remains to be seen if the supply of new flats promised by the HDB - 25,000 this year, with 20,000 promised for next year - will be sufficient to accommodate a buyer base that will include singles, said observers.

That is because it is not clear yet which singles are allowed to join the BTO queue, and what criteria they will be subject to.

But Mr Liang Eng Hwa, an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, reckoned the Government must have calculated the supply of flats coming onstream will be sufficient to meet demand from both couples and singles; if not, the policy change would not have been announced.

Despite uncertainty over what the final policy change will be, singles were happy with PM Lee's acknowledgement that with high resale prices, they have few options for a home of their own.

"The Government should also help Singaporeans who are outliers and do not conform to the idea of traditional families," said Ms K. Thanaletchimi, 49, president of the health-care service employees' union. "Singles are also taxpayers who have a stake in nation building."

Mr Heng said: "I'm glad there is a recognition that HDB policy discriminates against us. There are different definitions of a family nucleus. Singles are also part of the bigger Singapore family."

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