Thursday, 8 March 2012

HDB stands firm on flats for elderly in Toh Yi area

But it will build more recreational facilities, in response to residents' feedback
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2012

THE Housing Board (HDB) has decided - it will not budge.

It will stick to its original plan to build a block of studio apartments for the elderly at the junction of Toh Yi Drive and Toh Yi Road, despite protests and a petition by some residents there.

It said yesterday that alternative sites suggested by 230 residents in the estate - including siting it about 20m away near Block 17 instead - were unsuitable.

This came as good news to residents of Block 17, who had themselves started a petition upon learning about the idea to move the flats near them. They, in turn, proposed another site.

But some residents around Toh Yi Road were clearly unhappy. Several of them met The Straits Times near a basketball court last night, and were disgruntled and frustrated. Some complained that residents had been told there was going to be another open dialogue if there were updates, and were fed up that HDB was now going ahead with its plans.

They also brought up again their concerns about facilities being taken away from them, and how the site was unsuitable for the elderly because of the slopes.

The Build-to-Order exercise for the units will be launched later this month.

The Toh Yi saga, as well as the recent case of Woodlands residents opposed to an eldercare centre being built in their void deck, led to a national debate on how some Singaporeans appear to have a Not In My Backyard, or Nimby, attitude towards vulnerable groups like the old.

Studio apartments are a housing option for the elderly and have fittings such as grab bars and alarms. There are currently 6,800 of them in various housing estates, and HDB will launch 2,000 more units this year.

At a media briefing yesterday, HDB said it was not turning a deaf ear to the concerns of Toh Yi residents.

They had said that the block will be built on what is now the basketball court, jogging track and community garden - the area's main recreational facilities.

To this, HDB said it will build a children's playground and community garden on the second floor of the studio apartment building. This will be open to everyone to use. A jogging path will also be built. These will be on top of the usual facilities that studio apartments get, such as an elderly fitness corner.

Fifty more carpark spaces will be added to relieve the parking shortage in nearby blocks - another concern raised. This excludes the 16 spaces reserved for those in the studio apartments.

Some Toh Yi residents had said the site was unsuitable as it is on top of a slope and will pose a challenge for elderly residents to get to amenities near the main road.

HDB said it will add more footpaths to link the studio units seamlessly to the surrounding neighbourhood. It will also be adding rest areas along the Toh Yi Drive footpath.

HDB said that the site had all along been set aside for eventual development. It had earlier agreed to a request by the Bukit Timah Citizens Consultative Committee to use the area temporarily for a basketball court and garden. But the site had to be returned when needed for development.

HDB had proposed building the studio apartments (SA) there as there is currently no such block in Bukit Timah estate. Also, more than half the households in Toh Yi have at least one elderly occupant.

'A studio apartment project would benefit many elderly residents in Toh Yi, who could consider staying in an SA while continuing to live in a familiar neighbourhood,' the HDB said.

It added that Ms Sim Ann, the MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC who oversees the area, had asked HDB to give priority to elderly residents in the estate who wish to apply for the studio apartments.

HDB said that in response to her request, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had announced the Ageing in Place Priority Scheme in Parliament last Friday.

This gives studio apartment applicants who are existing flat owners living in the same estate or within 2km of the studio apartments twice the chance of being balloted. 'Elderly residents of Toh Yi will be among the first to benefit from this new scheme,' said HDB.

It had announced the apartments on its website in January. About 230 residents signed a petition and made known their concerns to Ms Sim. One resident sent a proposal to site the block near Block 17. There is currently a temporary carpark there.

But 50 residents from Block 17 signed a petition last weekend, saying that the block would obstruct their view and that the main road would be too noisy for the elderly. They suggested moving it to a site between the Bukit Timah Market and Food Centre and a petrol station.

HDB yesterday said that all in, four sites had been suggested by residents.

Ms Sim described HDB's decision as 'a reasonable outcome that addresses the overall interests of residents in our estate'. She added: 'Most residents I have spoken to told me they do not object to having studio apartments in the estate. The key question has always been about the site and a minority of residents have voiced objections.'

Yesterday, HDB officials distributed a circular to all the 1,600 residents in the area about the decision.

Financial consultant Michael Ong, 36, who lives in Block 12 which is next to the future studio apartments, said: 'I'm sure HDB has studied the best place for the studio apartments, and I'm happy they've made some improvisations. You can't please everyone.'

But housewife Priscilla Loo, 40, who also lives in Block 12, said: 'It's the only open space we have and it's being taken away. The park has been there for such a short period of time and it is wasteful for the facilities to be demolished.'

Facilities for seniors still planned for estates
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2012

THE minister in charge of Singapore's ageing policies yesterday made it clear that facilities for the elderly will continue to be built within housing estates, for the convenience of the seniors.

But Health Minister Gan Kim Yong also promised that the Government will share its plans with grassroots leaders and residents, and involve them when developing such facilities.

It will 'strike a careful balance between addressing the needs of the seniors and the needs of residents living there', said Mr Gan in Parliament yesterday.

He said he agreed with the calls by MPs Hri Kumar Nair and Lam Pin Min for a national plan on such facilities. Mr Nair said earlier that the Government should project where they are needed and share the information, so 'the matter is not dealt with ad hoc, and the issue is in everybody's backyard'.

They and others had decried the 'Not in My Backyard' attitude of some Singaporeans in the wake of protests by residents in Toh Yi and Woodlands over plans to set up daycare centres and studio apartments for the elderly in their neighbourhoods. The residents also complained that they were notified at the last minute.

The priority is to let them grow old gracefully and with dignity within a closely knit community, he said, urging grassroots leaders and Singaporeans 'to make the community inclusive and welcoming to our seniors'.

On its part, the Government will engage grassroots advisers, leaders and residents on its plans for developing such facilities.

He said: 'We must gear up as a society for the pace and magnitude of ageing that will come.'

In outlining the blueprint to ready Singapore for an ageing population - a topic raised by over 10 MPs during the debate, the minister gave a glimpse of how facilities for the elderly will grow, come 2020:
The network of senior activity centres will expand to serve 48,000 seniors, from 18,000
Capacity of daycare and rehabilitation services will triple to 6,200, from 2,100.
There will be more nursing home beds for families unable to care for their elderly members - from 9,000 now to 15,600.
More caregivers will be trained to provide home-based health-care services. They will serve 10,000 patients, up from 4,000.
Meanwhile, daycare centres and rehabilitation centres will be 'integrated', said Mr Gan, addressing feedback that the elderly now have to travel to different locations for their social and medical needs. He did not give more information.

On the affordability front, families with elderly folk will get subsidies - amounting to $250 million this year - to tap these various services.

The minister also added that the Government is prepared to bear the full cost of building facilities for the elderly, before turning them over to voluntary welfare organisations to run.

Mr Gan also said that his ministry will review the guidelines on care for the aged at nursing homes. He made it clear that it will not tolerate abuse of the elderly in nursing homes.

Since last June, the ministry has received nine complaints, mostly on the rough handling of elderly residents.

Without mincing his words, Mr Gan said that while cases of abuse are few and far between, 'one case of abuse is one case too many'.

They accept eldercare facilities in their backyard
Residents say they understand need for studio flats to be within the community
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2012

RETIRED teacher Lucy Tay enjoys a bird's eye view of her Jurong West estate from her 25th-floor Housing Board flat.

That perk will go in 2014 when a 15-storey block of 190 studio apartments for the elderly, called Golden Peony, is slated to be completed in front of her block.

'We will miss the unblocked premium view and mature trees too but we do not protest nor ask for the building to be sited elsewhere,' said the 62-year-old.

While the recent not-in-my-backyard protests in Woodlands and Toh Yi over plans to build eldercare facilities have generated much debate, many residents in HDB estates elsewhere appear to have accepted living next to such projects.

Residents whom The Straits Times spoke to said that while such HDB developments come with certain drawbacks and inconveniences, they are prepared to put up with them as they recognise the need for such facilities.

'Although I can't sleep in the morning from the construction noise and the wind may be blocked from coming in, all of us will age one day and these may be our future homes when we downgrade,' said Mr Au Yong, 47, a consultant. He lives in the same block as Madam Tay.

Another resident, who wanted to be called Madam Lim, supports the siting of studio flats in the community.

'We understand that the point of having such developments is to have it nearby so that they are familiar with the place. Family members will also find it convenient to visit them,' said the 58-year-old housewife.

Over in Bukit Batok, work on another studio-apartment development, the 20-storey Golden Daisy, will be completed in 2014.

Resident Madam Ivy Tan said she does not mind its location next to her block as the Bukit Batok estate has many elderly people.

'There must be a need for it as there are a lot of facilities for the elderly here,' observed the 37-year-old housewife.

The Studio Apartments scheme started in 1998 and the HDB is expected to launch more projects in the coming years as the population ages.

Studio apartments, a housing option for the elderly, have fittings such as grab bars and alarms and are sold on 30-year leases.

To date, the HDB has offered about 6,800 studio apartments in various estates such as Choa Chu Kang and Ang Mo Kio. About 2,000 have been completed and 2,000 more units will be launched this year, with the bulk in mature estates.

Some of the units are built together with three-room, four-room or five-room flats in a block while others are in standalone blocks. Seven out of the current 13 standalone studio apartment blocks have been completed.

While vehement protests from residents against having such homes in their backyard have been few and far between, experts said there are many reasons why some communities have shown more adverse reactions.

One factor to consider is whether the studio apartments will encroach on existing facilities.

'If you take away their existing facilities and replace them with another facility that will not benefit them as much, they are likely to object,' said Mr Jack Chua, chief executive of Hersing Corp which includes property firm ERA Realty.

One of the main reasons some residents from Toh Yi objected is that the area's main recreational facilities will have to give way.

The HDB has said it will include some of these facilities in planning the project.

Mr David Ong, MP for the area where Golden Daisy is sited, believes it is easier for his residents to accept the development as the plot of land used to be empty.

He added: 'Plans for the apartments were circulated on the ground to the residents one year before construction so there is time for the news to sink in.'

Other factors like the size and demographics of the community also play a part, experts note.

In a small estate like Toh Yi, there is greater cohesiveness among residents who can be counted on to rally for changes, compared to bigger and looser communities where it is less likely for any strong view to take hold, said chief executive of PropNex Realty, Mr Mohamed Ismail.

Ms Indranee Rajah, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, said it is important to consider the demographic profile of the area so that the needs of the residents can be better met.

'I requested a seniors activity centre in one of the rental blocks and many of my residents, who are the low-income elderly, welcomed it when it opened one month ago,' she noted.

Through a cracked mirror, all look bad
Editorial, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2012

SOMETHING is shattered when people compare studio apartments for the elderly in the neighbourhood to 'death houses', a place for those waiting to die. The aspiration of a gracious and inclusive society then appears as a cracked looking glass that's been mended and put up again. It doesn't matter who fractured it, the result is the same - the reflection of Singaporeans collectively will look askew.

This is an ugly consequence of efforts by people to keep 'undesirable' groups out of their neighbourhoods, be they the elderly, as was the case at Toh Yi and Woodlands recently, or foreign workers, as witnessed at Serangoon Gardens earlier. Perhaps the only saving grace of the sorry saga at Toh Yi estate in Bukit Timah is that it was a minority of residents who based their objections on the presence of aged people in their backyard. For most, it was the loss of the open space - a basketball court and jogging track - that was the bone of contention.

Much angst could have been avoided if the Housing Board had made clearer to residents that the land was earmarked for development all along, and did more to inform them of its plans. It should be par for the course to consult residents when forthcoming uses of space can impact them. Such talks should be held early in the planning process, the better to address concerns, generate useful suggestions and help get the community onboard.

That said, no one should pretend that better communication would have smoothed over the protests of some residents, whose real motives were laid bare by the unseemly manner in which proposal and counter-proposal was made for the new facilities to be sited anywhere else but here. The HDB should be applauded for standing firm, even as it tweaked its plans to take in residents' suggestions.

In tiny Singapore, just about everyone's prized property abuts someone else's backyard. Public facilities may have to be located close to someone's home or shared space if they are to be of most use to the community. This is true whether the facility is a new hawker centre - which everyone now seems to be clamouring for - or a less popular one like a home for the elderly or dormitory for foreign workers.

When residents behave like tribes guarding their contiguous zone with spears drawn, and planners have to deal with a thousand points of resentment over every alternative proposal tabled, well-intentioned efforts to act in the public interest will be stymied, and something precious - that sense of community - is lost.

Space in heartland and our hearts for seniors
When seniors live next to the young, a journey of understanding begins
By Lee Siew Hua, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2012

IN 1961, the Government banned death houses in Sago Lane. This was where the sickly old once lived their last days above incense-filled funeral parlours in Chinatown. Chilling stories were told of how some of the dying slept in coffins.

This spectral Sago Lane subtext runs through the recent objections to studio flats and a daycare centre for seniors.

An honest handful of Toh Yi residents likened the 130 Housing Board studios that will rise in their midst to 'death houses'. The eight-point Woodlands petition also mentioned that inauspicious deaths would go up once a daycare facility was built at the void decks of two facing blocks.

Fear of death is primal and should not be laughed off. It is even present in institutional memory.

In 2008, when then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan pledged that the authorities would improve care for the dying, he acknowledged: 'The Ministry of Health has been hesitant in supporting this cause. Its institutional memory has been coloured by that of the Sago Lane death houses, where the dying spent their last months in misery and neglect.'

It's half a century later but the spirit of Sago Lane lingers in the public imagination. What's pernicious is that people unthinkingly smudge the line between seniors and the dying. The stigma of death attaches too prematurely to the living and confuses our discourse.

But it is not Sago Lane redux in modern Singapore. Studio flats are a rational housing option for buyers as young as 55 - unlikely to be near death's door and possibly still hard at work. They must have a gross monthly household income of not more than $10,000.

Launched in 1998, studios are customised for mini-households of senior couples or singles to live independently. Instead of staying put in a large empty nest, some consider switching to a studio.

Studios are priced with the reduced budgets of older applicants in mind. For the January launch of new Build-To-Order flats, the prices of studios started at $77,000 in Choa Chu Kang and $86,000 in Tampines.

By 'rightsizing' to a smaller space, those nearing retirement and older may unlock assets at a time when it is expensive to retire in the Republic - ranked the ninth priciest city globally by the Economist Intelligence Unit this year.

Seniors, like younger family members, cherish self-determination. According to a 2009 Lifestyle Survey commissioned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), 10.9 per cent of elderly respondents preferred to live in HDB studio apartments. About the same number, 10.6 per cent, liked the idea of retirement villages.

So it may be more amiable and comfortable for these older folk and their adult children to dwell in independent households rather than squeezing under one roof, even if bonds are warm.

While the majority of 78.5 per cent wish to live in regular housing and age in place within the community, what the Lifestyle Survey conveys is that no one option fits all. The Housing Board, with a constant eye on demographics and demand, has been amplifying choices for all. It has resumed the building of three-room flats, for instance.

The HDB is housing a nation ever on the move, and has to embrace the silver population as much as their offspring - vocal young couples in line for starter homes.

The HDB simply has to deploy all its ingenuity and technology to create liveable places. I attended a few focus-group consultations of Concept Plan Review 2011 hosted by the URA, and was much struck by the ideas and contagious sense of social good brought to the table.

One sound recommendation was to embed a number of purpose-built studio apartments for the elderly in future HDB blocks, rather than building standalone blocks of studios. This hopefully integrates elders into the community.

The ideal of integration is institutionalised in US housing policy. In the lovely condominium where I once lived in the Washington, DC region, we had a mix of apartment sizes. Studios were set aside for people with disabilities and those on state assistance, like a querulous young man in a wheelchair and an anxious Azerbaijan immigrant who cooked exotic dishes for me with what little she had.

On my floor was Harry, a blind elderly man who lived alone but with verve like so many in the US capital. In summer, he swam in the rooftop pool. Friends picked him up for church and committee meetings. Once, he described the glowing sounds of an Italian opera performed in the National Cathedral.

Their presence diversified and enriched our world. This could be Singapore's story, too, when households are less segregated and studios for the elderly become the norm. This could be Singapore's opportunity to reach out for world-class solutions for social good.

Enlarging the space of seniors in Singapore, in their physical homes and beyond, simply means we harness our will and imagination towards the end.

Beyond proper housing options for our seniors, a truer narrative of ageing must arise and capture the full reality of both the fragility and fruits of growing old.

In this age of super-longevity, the young and the aged themselves can learn to see that being old is not an irredeemable loss but a transition still somehow infused with aspiration and activity. Living next to each other is one step in a journey of refashioning paradigms about ageing.

People may quibble loudly. But they will adjust to the presence of seniors in studios, the needy in rental blocks, and foreign workers in dormitories.

And in a nation that pelts into the future as relentlessly as Singapore, even the ancient odour of death will waft away.

Look at Bishan, once a huge Cantonese burial ground and now a popular choice for home buyers. And look again at Sago Lane, where the lively Chinatown Complex now sits on the site of death houses.

Even on this hyper-dense speck of an island, there's more room than we imagine for life and death, and space for every generation.


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