Sunday 13 November 2011

Smaller flats do not mean lower quality of living: HDB CEO

By Joanne Chan, Channel News Asia, 10 Nov 2011

Public flats in Singapore may be getting smaller but this has not lowered quality of living, says Housing and Development Board's (HDB) CEO, Dr Cheong Koon Hean.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a housing forum on Thursday morning, Dr Cheong noted that there were now fewer persons living in one flat which works out to increased living space per person.

"Our families are smaller. In the old days, we have very large families living in a flat. Today, the family is two, three, four (people)."

The size of HDB flats has shrunk by five to 10 per cent over the last 20 to 30 years.

For example, a five-room flat in Bukit Batok Central built in 1989 has a floor area of 121 square metres, compared to 110 square metres for a similar unit built in 2003.

Based on official surveys, the average household size was 3.5 in 2010, and 4.9 in 1980.

This means an occupant in a 110 square metre five-room flat today will have 31 square metres of space, while a resident in a 121 square metres five-room flat in the 80s had only about 25 square metres of space.

Dr Cheong added that interior design also plays a part in creating good living space.

"In many global cities of the world or big cities, people do pay attention to how they do the inside of the flat as well as optimising the use of furniture and storage. It can be a very comfortable living environment."

PropNex chief executive Mohamed Ismail concurred with Dr Cheong: "The modern Singapore family is much smaller and living in a bigger place compared to previous generations, and with amenities. The quality of life is not affected."

Mr Ismail added: "And people have a choice to buy three, four or five-room flats."

Still, Mr Ismail noted that with the high property prices, the lower income with many children will be most affected as they have "no choice but to buy within their means, and that means a smaller flat".

Size matters

Suntec Chesterton International head of research and consultancy Colin Tan disagreed with the suggestion that the smaller flat sizes have not compromised the quality of living.

Mr Tan pointed out that today's modern family needs "at least" a three-bedroom flat with one room for the domestic help or the in-laws.

"And when the children grow up, families will want separate rooms for daughters and sons," Mr Tan said.

Mr Tan noted that unlike the private sector, the HDB does not reduce the size of the kitchen. Instead, it builds smaller bedrooms and this is where Mr Tan believes has the "biggest impact" on the quality of life.

He also argued that Singaporeans, who have become more affluent, have a greater number of possessions which require space. Said Mr Tan: "People who have lived in bigger flats will feel that their quality of life has gone down."

Some flat owners pointed out that it is the size of the unit that affects a couple's decision on the number of children to have. Ms Priscilla Raj, 28, who lives in a five-room Build-To-Order flat, said she was not satisfied with the size of her flat, which might deter her from having more children.

The mother of one said: "(The size) will affect your quality of life - there's no space to have your in-laws or friends to stay over. The cramp makes you feel that you're living in a cell."

Speaking at a forum, Dr Cheong said designing and building public housing is not an easy task.

"We really take care of people from the time they get married until they retire and this raises many expectations from our residents. We have to keep pace with the changing and evolving needs and aspirations of our residents by having a greater variety of designs, yet keeping cost affordable. 'Efficiency' and 'cost' are therefore key to us to build value-for-money housing."

And as HDB towns and flats remain under the label of 'HDB', Dr Cheong said "residents often expect their flats to be serviced by HDB beyond the one-year defects liability period".

She said HDB is therefore "very conscious of building in such a way that minimises potential problems in the long term". This includes ensuring construction that is durable, and minimising dis-amenities such as water seepage, overlooking and noise.

To achieve this, HDB also engaged both the public and private sectors for new housing projects.

For example, the HDB held a design competition for its Punggol Waterfront project and received more than 100 entries. The eventual winner stood out for its unique design that maximised each resident's view of the waterway, and for incorporating green features that tie in with the HDB's push for sustainable living.

All 108 entries will be displayed at the HDB Hub Atrium in Toa Payoh from November 10 to 13.

A new business portal for builders was also announced at the forum.

The portal, which will be launched next month, will allow builders to access technical resources such as HDB's standard specifications, conditions of contracts and schedules of rates. E-services such as the submission of progress payments will also be provided.

Less room, hence smaller families?
Letter from Rick Lim Say Kiong, TODAY, 12 Nov 2011

IT IS difficult to agree with Housing and Development Board (HDB) chief executive Cheong Koon Hean's assertion that "Smaller flats doesn't mean lower quality of living" (Nov 10), for the building of smaller flats has had its own inadvertent consequences.

Firstly, Dr Cheong observes a posteriori that families nowadays are smaller and thus smaller flats will suffice to meet these familial needs.

However, might not building such flats have contributed to the rise of smaller families?

Over the last 20 or so years, Singaporeans have seen land becoming scarcer and HDB flats becoming smaller, and adjusted their expectations of family size accordingly. This makes sense as we are a pragmatic lot.

One may argue that the correlation between HDB flat size and family size does not establish a causal relationship - other extenuating factors, such as work stress, overcrowding of public facilities, changes in social norms and modernisation, do play a role. In this instance, however, I am simply extrapolating from Dr Cheong's inference.

Secondly, Dr Cheong did not identify what exactly is a lower quality of living.

Compared to the days of yore, Singaporeans these days are paying much more for smaller HDB flats. To many, this might be considered a lower quality of life.

For example, a new five-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio Central cost S$40,000 in the 1980s.

Now, a similar flat in the same vicinity costs up to 10 times that price (under the Sale of Balance Flats scheme). I doubt our average salaries have increased at the same rate.

The Government has been encouraging Singaporeans to procreate and have more children in its bid to raise the total fertility rate.

The provision of smaller and more expensive flats by HDB seems to run counter to that national initiative and could have inured us to raising smaller families instead.

Public housing: Size does matter
By Colin Tan, TODAY, 18 Nov 2011

The shrinking size of public flats does not necessarily mean a lower quality of living, Housing and Development Board (HDB) chief executive Cheong Koon Hean said last week. She said residents could use good interior design and arrange their furniture to create better storage options that will give that feeling of space. 

She said that while HDB flats had become smaller, Singapore's average household size had also decreased. While big families were common in the past, households today have only two to four members, she noted. The average household size fell from 4.9 in 1989 to 3.5 last year.

An example compiled by one reporter - who lives in a four-room flat in Toa Payoh - showed that the average amount of space per person rose from 21 sq m in 1989 to 26 per sq m in 2006.

This is an increase of 24 per cent of living space per capita - substantial progress, whichever way you look at it. But statistics are not the be all and end all.

The feedback that I have received from some young owners has been negative, especially as one puts it, Dr Cheong is supposed to look after their interests. Another asked whether her comments indicated that new flat sizes would remain small or shrink even further?

To be fair to Dr Cheong, their unhappiness may not stem solely from the small flat sizes but also from pricing and location issues. It could also be due to unmet expectations given that most of these young owners had lived in their parents' flats that were much bigger.

The small sizes of the flats are never felt more keenly than during house-warming parties, which are supposed to celebrate the hosts' new-found status as proud owners of their dream home. Yet, guests end up standing for most of the time or spill out into the corridors.

Singaporeans also feel that each succeeding generation should enjoy a better lifestyle as the economy grows. Instead, young couples are getting smaller flats in further-flung areas with fewer amenities, even as the quality of flats has risen. It appears the trade-offs have not been enough to show a net gain.

For me, as an economy matures and income levels grow, the higher-order needs come more into play. The need for privacy grows - which is why I feel a minimum of three bedrooms is necessary for all flat types - a room each for the parents, the boys and the girls. It is not uncommon to hear of households moving for this reason.

When social interaction becomes unbearable, an individual retreats to his or her own personal space. You cannot really do this in a small flat.

In land-scarce Singapore, some of life's luxuries are already out of reach for the vast majority of us. In my time, the dream of most young households was to own a landed property with enough room to do a spot of gardening. 

Other luxuries - like owning a car - may soon become out of reach for most Singaporeans. No matter how much Singapore progresses or how much income levels rise, some things are just not going to happen. There is just not enough land.

But providing most Singaporeans with a bigger flat - and I do not mean large - is possible. We can always build higher. As for costs, it is all a matter of tweaking our flat pricing formulas - which I feel are due for a review anyway.

At the moment, our average living space per person is closer to that in a developing country than in a developed economy. Let us give our citizens a flat size befitting our developed economy status.

Colin Tan is head of research and consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International.

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