The Big Read: Amid societal changes, how will the link between family formation and housing policies evolve?
For single Singaporeans, the road to securing a roof over their heads has been more challenging than some others, when for the longest time, a Singaporean’s marital status is a key factor in determining their eligibility for public housing.
SINGAPORE: The first thing that Ms Rahayu Natalya did after her newborn was allowed to go home - she was born premature and had to remain in hospital for a month - was to bring her along to see their Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Christopher de Souza, to seek help in getting a rental flat from the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
The single unwed mother started her quest for a rental flat when she was about four months pregnant in 2016, and was still without a home after giving birth.
“When I brought my daughter to him (the MP) … I said, ‘Why do I feel like my government has turned its back on me?’. Because I am here literally homeless with my daughter,” said Ms Rahayu, who works part-time at non-profit organisation Daughters of Tomorrow.
About a year after she first started her search for a home, the 39-year-old eventually got her one-room rental flat — after “a lot of letters” and much help from Mr de Souza, who looks after the Ulu Pandan ward in the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
Then there is Mr Fadhil Azmi, who was renting for 10 years before he finally bought his own HDB flat in 2019 when he reached the minimum eligible age of 35 years old.
He moved out of his parents’ home as he wanted his own space, given that he comes from a big family living in a small flat.
“The amount I spent on rent in the last 10 years, I could have paid for the house (if I was allowed to buy it) back then… I would have been debt-free by now,” said the 36-year-old who works in marketing.
For single Singaporeans such as Ms Rahayu and Mr Fadhil, the road to securing a roof over their heads has been more challenging than some others.
That’s because for the longest time, a Singaporean’s marital status is a key factor in determining whether he or she is eligible for public housing.
According to experts, linking housing eligibility to matrimony is meant to help the Government, among other things, achieve its wider national objective of encouraging couples to get married and have children, so as to boost the local population growth. It also helps to prioritise housing resources in land-scarce Singapore.
Married couples or those intending to get married do not face age limitations and get higher housing grants.
Singles, on the other hand, can buy an HDB flat only when they turn 35, and are limited to only smaller units in newer estates when they buy flats that are built and sold at subsidised rates by the Government.
In recent years, in a nod to societal changes and intense lobbying by MPs, there have been moves by the authorities to alleviate the plight of some groups of singles, including single unwed parents and divorcees.
Most recently, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced on March 4 that it would be piloting a new scheme, where low-income singles looking to apply for public rental flats will soon no longer have to find a flatmate first.
Currently, only two or more singles can apply for a public rental flat together under the Joint Singles Scheme (JSS). Individuals who are not able to find a flatmate would typically have to approach the housing agency for help to source for one.
This latest change comes amid anecdotal evidence that some co-tenants could not get along with each other and ended up in an acrimonious living environment.
Still, the general sentiment among singles in Singapore - which was also borne out by interviews with this group - is that the policy changes do not go far enough and more can be done.
Mr Abhishek Ravikrishnan, who is currently renting a room as he is not old enough under HDB rules to buy a public flat, said he understands the wider objective of designing policies that prioritise the nucleus family, which is understood to refer to a heterosexual married couple with children.
However, the 31-year-old who produces sports content said the Government should look at other ways of catering to the increasing number of Singaporeans who do not wish to form such a nucleus family.
“At the end of the day, if your objective is just to give birth and have babies, perhaps then we don’t fit in the country. Is that what you are trying to say? … What kind of message are you sending to people who don’t conform to that?” said Mr Abhishek.
The tweaks in housing policies in recent years are also taking place in the wider context of demographic shifts in Singapore’s population.
READ: Half of all new two-room HDB Flexi flats booked by elderly buyers; singles bought 38% of units
According to data from the Department of Statistics, marriage rates have been on the downtrend as fewer couples got married in 2019 compared to 2018 and the number of divorces has gone up. Over a longer-term period, it also showed that Singaporeans are marrying later.
Singapore’s total fertility rate, which refers to the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime, has also been trending downwards over the last few decades.
The total fertility rate in 2020 is 1.1, far below the replacement level of 2.1.
Given such trends, can or should Singapore continue to incorporate incentives for family formation in its housing policies? And bearing in mind the complexities of the housing market, what are the possible implications and knock-on effects of any changes?
PRESERVING THE FAMILY UNIT
Calls for the Government to relax public housing eligibility requirements for singles are not new.
Before 1991, the only option for singles was to buy from the private market or apply for a Housing and Urban Development Company unit, which typically came with a higher price tag.
READ: Nearly S$500 million disbursed to 15,600 first-time HDB flat buyers under Enhanced CPF Housing Grant
HDB had said in the 1980s that its priority was to provide a home for every Singaporean family and relaxing the rules for singles would lengthen the waiting period for families.
Former National Development Minister S Dhanabalan said in 1988 that allowing singles to buy their own flats and live alone would also be in direct conflict with the Government’s efforts to preserve the traditional family unit.
Housing rules for singles were finally relaxed in 1991, when singles aged 35 and above were allowed to buy HDB resale flats, but only limited to three-room flats in selected locations.
Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over the helm from founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew a year earlier, announced the new scheme during the 1991 National Day Rally.
Then in 1998, housing grants from the Central Provident Fund were extended to singles.
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took over the reins from Mr Goh in 2004, he announced that singles could buy four-room and five-room HDB resale flats at any location.
In 2013, the rules were further relaxed when singles above 35 were allowed to buy Build-to-Order (BTO) flats - which are heavily subsidised by the Government - directly from HDB, but only limited to two-room flats.
Experts interviewed noted that in spite of the changes over the decades, those forming families continue to have priority among the many different Singaporean profiles that are looking for public housing.
READ: More HDB households but average size shrank, with fewer multi-generational families living together
Professor Paulin Tay Straughan, a sociologist at the Singapore Management University (SMU), said that the policy is designed this way in the interest of national stability.
“The national agenda has always been they will promote home ownership in line with the family ideology that supports our nation-building,” she said.
Mr Nicholas Mak, the head of research and consultancy department at real estate firm ERA, said that the agenda of promoting marriage and children, and ensuring that there is the next generation of Singaporeans, is ultimately about the survival of Singapore.
“I don’t think the Government will drop the objective ... to encourage family formation and encourage families to have more children … because there is no substitute,” he said.
READ: Commentary: Succeed in your career, settle down, buy a BTO. Is this Singaporean dream outdated?
Speaking during the debate on the MND’s budget for the upcoming financial year, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said that the Government will still offer generous grants to young families to help them afford their first flats.
Nevertheless, the Government recognises the demographic shifts.
When Mr Lee was Second Minister for National Development in 2018, he had also said that Singapore needs to keep reviewing its policies to accommodate people and families in different circumstances, such as those coming from single-parent homes and never-married singles.
National University of Singapore (NUS) sociology professor Tan Ern Ser noted that it’s about balancing the need to form families, as well as ensuring singles of all backgrounds are also being taken care of.
CALLS FOR CHANGE
But singles spoken to feel that this balancing act is tilted too far in favour of those with growing and intact families.
Take the case of Ms Leila, a divorced mother with two children, who declined to give her full name.
After moving out of her matrimonial home in 2015 and filing for divorce after her then-husband abused her, she obtained a court order requiring him, who still lives in the flat, to sell it. However, he has refused to budge.
This means Ms Leila is unable to secure another HDB flat for her and her two children as she still has one flat under her name.
She was only able to get a rental flat in June 2020 after Mr Louis Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, helped her appeal to HDB.
Even then, the whole waiting process was fraught with anxiety as she was initially rejected multiple times.
“For many months, I called HDB and begged … I feel that anybody who is family, regardless whether you are an unwed mum, single mum or divorcee or whatever, should be entitled to a flat and to have a proper roof over their head,” said the 51-year-old trainer in self-development.
Having a home would provide people like her the stability and security to get back on their feet, such as finding a job, noted Ms Leila.
“Once you don’t feel stable, there are a lot of mental issues, health issues, because you are not grounded. Once you have a safe place, your whole body just relaxes… The Government doesn't have to actually help or give more money or financial assistance because we feel empowered to do things because we are safe,” she added.
Ms Kanak Muchhal, who oversees women strategic development at Daughters of Tomorrow, said one policy change that could ease the difficulties for low-income women going through divorce is for the Government to provide a rental flat while they are in the midst of settling the paperwork.
This is because a lot of these women, while going through the divorce process, end up leaving their matrimonial home and they face a lot of difficulties in planning their next step for themselves and their children due to the uncertainty.
Currently, HDB allows divorced parents with children under 18 to apply for a two- or three-room BTO flat in a non-mature estate after obtaining a provisional order for divorce and resolving matters relating to their matrimonial home and children custody.
READ: Commentary: Couples who stay in unhappy unions for the sake of children may end up harming them
Those who have full care and control over their children may also be able to retain their home even if they are under 35.
While most women do manage to get a HDB flat eventually, Ms Kanak said: “But the timeline is long, and there is no visibility as to how long, which leads to uncertainty”.
The hurdles single and divorced parents face in securing a flat have also led to some criticism that the housing policies have been designed to favour a very narrow idea of what constitutes a nucleus family.
Mr Ian Lee, who is in a same-sex relationship with his partner for the past 14 years, said that as the couple are still not seen as a family unit, they were unable to buy an HDB flat before reaching the age of 35. After renting for one year together, Mr Lee finally bought his HDB resale flat when he turned 35 last year through the singles’ scheme.
“HDB has always been about trying to provide homes for Singaporeans but we are denied access to homes (even though we are) at the same stage of life as our heterosexual counterparts,” said the 35-year-old public relations professional.
Like Mr Abhishek and Mr Fadhil, Mr Lee said he supports the Government’s policy of giving priority to married heterosexual couples in the form of greater subsidies and other benefits, which is one half of what he considers a “carrot and stick” approach.
But he takes issue with what he calls the “anti-single penalties”.
One way the Government can tweak the policy is to give more subsidies and benefits to heterosexual couples, but reduce the restrictions for those who fall outside the nucleus family definition, said Mr Lee.
“I’m a taxpayer and a Singaporean … But just because I don’t fit the exact mould you would like me to, that doesn’t make me any less of a Singaporean, and therefore I should not be treated less than any of my Singaporean counterparts,” he added.
Mr Fadhil suggested that while all other advantages for married couples could remain, lowering the age eligibility for singles to buy a HDB flat from 35 to 25 would be appropriate as that is the age when most young Singaporeans start working and earn an income.
SUGGESTIONS AND POTENTIAL TRADE-OFFS
A long-time advocate for single unwed mothers, Mr Ng, the Nee Soon GRC MP, said it is time to review the housing policy for never-married singles, although he believes that the prioritisation of family formation should still remain.
He said that giving the young some freedom to live on their own might help to increase their desire for dating. While he acknowledged that there is no evidence yet to prove that link, he said the added responsibilities that comes with having one’s own place may lead one to consider settling down.
“A lot are getting married later now, a lot would like to move out of their parents’ house but the current 35-year-old age limit might restrict that. It’s time to review that,” Mr Ng said.
For a start, he said the Government can consider reducing the age limit to 33 or 34 for BTO flats.
In response to queries, a spokesperson from the Workers’ Party reiterated its proposal to lower the minimum age requirement to apply for a BTO flat to 28, and create a new class of rental units — a recommendation which the opposition party made in its manifesto released during last year’s General Election.
“We in the Workers' Party acknowledge the successes of Singapore's public housing policy to date, but also see a need for reform, difficult as that may be,” said the spokesperson.
“Singaporeans hope to see HDB flats remain a livable home that every Singaporean can afford, while also ensuring that retirement adequacy is not damaged by a precipitous resale price collapse.”
Most experts said policy tweaks to ease requirements for singles could be considered, but a "free-for-all" situation would not be possible.
The crux of the issue is that while HDB has to cater to various types of housing needs, it only has limited land and financial resources.
Associate Professor Sing Tien Foo, Director of the Institute of Real Estate Studies at NUS, pointed out that there won’t be an issue meeting everyone’s demands if there are unlimited resources. However, the very real resource constraints mean that the Government has to prioritise who to allocate them to.
For example, lowering the age eligibility for singles to buy HDB flats would mean that more subsidies would have to be given to them, in addition to land and building costs.
“How does this impose on the Government budget and fiscal constraints?” he asked. Another factor complicating how the Government should set the eligibility requirements is the fact that HDB flats are highly subsidised, noted Professor Straughan.
“So, it’s taxpayers’ money and the reason the Government can tie it to national interests to justify the high subsidies,” she said. “Herein lies the difficulty. If a person is not married, should taxpayers’ money be going into subsidising their homeownership? I think it’s very hard to get around that… Unless there are exigencies and this person just cannot find a place to live and rentals are so exorbitantly high. Then it becomes a welfare situation.”
For the Government to make a policy change, there must be a social problem that requires state intervention, Mr Mak pointed out.
“Is (the group of singles under 35) facing any housing shortage of their own, meaning they really have no place to live? If there is no housing problem, then why fix something that is not broken?” he said.
However, this is not to say that there is absolutely no room for the rules on singles to be reviewed.
One way to make the case for singles below 35 to get a HDB flat is for them to buy it from the resale market, as they would then be buying the unit at market value and not be relying on government subsidies, said Prof Straughan.
To ensure that the market is not distorted, she suggested three criteria that could accompany this lowering of age eligibility: There must be enough supply of HDB resale flats; singles are only restricted to buying smaller three-room flats; and they have extenuating circumstances, such as not having a place to stay.
These regulations could help limit demand and prevent the prices of resale flats from soaring, which, if it does happen, would attract a fresh round of criticisms of the Government’s housing policies.
“Every time you lift the restrictions, it increases the number of people who will go into the market … The Government has to make sure that every shift is carefully deliberated because they have to justify every time they lift the eligibility criteria as it opens up the market for more competition,” said Prof Straughan.
Mr Mak also noted that any move to lower the age limit for singles to buy HDB flats would definitely lead to price increases, and this would generally be more advantageous to the high-income segments of the population, while low-income households get priced out.
Safeguards would have to be put in place to prevent any abuse, he said, such as imposing income ceilings on resale flats, just like for BTOs.
Mr Mak also pointed out that the supply for flats is inelastic as it takes years for them to be built and an additional five years before resale flats can be sold in the market. Demand, however, can change the very next day depending on policy moves. Hence, there is a need for the Government to moderate demand.
Another suggestion that could ease the housing frustration for singles is for HDB to build better-quality rental housing for young singles to rent from the age of 30 before they can buy their own flat at 35, said Assoc Prof Tan, the NUS sociologist.
READ: Commentary: An elderly public housing project is a game-changer but mindsets still need shifting
While the bigger priority is still to encourage family formation, he said that the policy could be more inclusive and seek to cater to the housing needs of a wider group of people.
These rental studios would be cheaper than those in the private rental market and come with a short lease of a maximum of five years.
Assoc Prof Tan suggested that HDB could launch it as a pilot in a few blocks first to see if it works out.
Listen to Prof Sing Tien Foo discuss developments in the property market since COVID-19 hit on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
PRIORITISING CERTAIN GROUPS OF SINGLES
Since it is unlikely for the HDB to completely relax these restrictions, experts and MPs interviewed said any policy adjustment should first cater to the plight of vulnerable singles, which would typically include low-income individuals, single or divorced parents.
For Prof Straughan and Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, more attention should be given to elderly singles — not only because they are the most vulnerable segment but also because they would increase in numbers with Singapore’s ageing population.
Mr Lim, who has been advocating for HDB to cater more to the needs of this group, welcomes the board’s latest policy shift in allowing singles to apply for public rental flats without having to find a flatmate beforehand.
“We do have more and more elderly singles. Along the way, we also have divorced parents, they also need housing, we need to adapt. Some flexibility would be helpful instead of a blunt policy of requiring two persons to be living in a rental flat and that’s it,” he said.
Assoc Prof Tan believes that families with children, whether from single unwed parents or divorced parents, should be prioritised.
“Not only because we want higher fertility. It’s also a moral issue. Children are actually innocent. Why should they be punished because of what their parents did or didn’t do,” he said.
Another group of people whom he believes deserve help are those who leave their homes due to domestic violence issues.
Assoc Prof Tan said his concept of rental studios could be used to accommodate singles in such situations as well.
“Why can't we use whatever we have? What I do know is that there are flats that are empty at any one time. Those can be used for this kind of purposes,” he said.
Assoc Prof Sing felt that the level of income — and not family type — should be the first measure of assessing whether an individual and his or her family requires government assistance for housing.
In the context of limited resources, a low-income single parent should get priority over another single parent who has a higher income, for example. In the case of a low-income single parent versus a low-income single, the single parent’s housing needs would be more urgent.
However, he acknowledged that making such decisions is a complex issue, with the Government having to consider many factors.
“It’s very difficult to measure properly, difficult to draw the line on who you should help if you have resources,” he said.
INCREMENTAL STEPS NEEDED
Meeting the public housing needs of every Singaporean has been a mammoth task from the start, and it is likely to become more complicated in the future.
As the make-up of Singapore society becomes more diverse, so would be their housing needs, which may even be competing against each other.
As the current demographic trends continue, Mr Alan Cheong, executive director of research and consultancy at real estate service provider Savills, believes that HDB could eventually return to being a builder of homes for the needy, while the rest of Singapore would, over time, settle their housing needs through the private market.
With Singaporeans increasingly more educated and influenced by cultural practices overseas, he argues that incentivising family formation through housing policies is a “lost cause”.
“The nucleus family is passe. Whether you like it or not, more and more people would not have the traditional idea of marriage and having kids,” he said.
While Singaporeans who believe in the institution of marriage still form a majority, there is a growing number of sub-groups consisting of singles of various backgrounds “eating away at its edges”, he added.
However, Mr Ng, the Nee Soon GRC MP, believes change can still happen incrementally while retaining the status quo, which is why he suggested to lower the age limit by one or two years before making further adjustments if necessary.
While recognising that resources are limited, he believes that tweaking housing policy levers is not about “restricting one and helping the other”.
“Married people will still get their bigger HDB flats and more subsidies, but I think singles should also get their fair share of the pie,” said the MP.
Mr Lim, the Mountbatten MP, echoed similar sentiments, adding that small steps should be taken in finding the right balance on how to apportion resources.
Cognisant of the complexities behind Singapore’s housing policies, Mr Abhishek acknowledged that there will always be a segment of the population that will be left out no matter how much policymakers adjust the rules.
However, he still believes that something needs to be done.
“We have a growing number of people who don’t want to get married… all kinds of people living together in one country under one citizenship, you cannot ignore that,” he said.