Sunday, 4 March 2012

More BTO flats for second-timers, help for retirees and multi-generation families: Budget 2012 MND COS

By Joanne Chan, Channel NewsAsia, 2 Mar 2012

Second timers applying for a Build-To-Order (BTO) flat, retirees looking to age-in-place, and multi-generation families have received a housing boost from the Ministry of National Development.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced tweaks to balloting rules for second-timers during the Committee of Supply debate for his ministry in Parliament on Friday.

He said these are aimed at building strong families, encouraging Singaporeans to own their homes, and also to govern with a "heart" and help the less well-off.

Mr Khaw said when he stepped into the ministry a year ago, it was facing a "hot housing problem".

There were lessons to learn from pioneers who led Singapore's Housing Board.

He said they focused on the longer term greater good of many, putting community interest above self interest, and dared to try.

Mr Khaw said because of that, they turned Toa Payoh into a thriving modern township and Singapore into a world-renowned Garden City.

He recalled the work of those like the late Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr Lim Kim San, the Housing Board's first Chairman.

Mr Khaw said under Mr Lim's watch, public housing and home ownership became firmly established and eventually, became the Singaporean way of life.

He said he stepped into an MND facing a severe mismatch in supply and demand, which, coupled with global liquidity and low interest rates, caused sharp spikes in housing prices.

Mr Khaw said: "The situation reminded me of a speech that the late Dr Goh Keng Swee made in 1980 on the plight of pig farmers. He spoke on what the economists refer to as the pig cycle. When the price of pork is high, pig farmers rear more pigs in the hope of making more money. However, when the piglets grow up and reach the market, there is a glut and prices drop. Farmers then cut the number of piglets they raise, thereby ensuring that when these mature, there will be a shortage and prices go up again."

He said months of corrective action have brought some stability to the housing market.

Mr Khaw said: "The best laid scheme can often go askew. This is particularly so for Singapore where the larger global environment, over which we have little control, can easily derail our projections. And that was how MND's housing projection and recent rebuilding programmes went askew, when our population shot past projections, mortgage interest rates plunged, and our economy made a surprisingly quick and strong rebound in 2010.

"And bear in mind how difficult it is for the construction industry to ramp up and slow down. There is a long lead time. Many months of corrective action, policy modifications and hard work have brought some stability to the housing market. We are not yet out of the tunnel, but we are seeing some light at the end of it."

Having ramped up the supply of new BTO flats, Mr Khaw said almost all first-timers (earning below $10,000) will be successful.

And he can now address the housing needs of others.

Currently, second-timers are allocated 5 percent of new flats across all categories.

Starting from the March BTO exercise, the percentage of flats in non-mature estates allocated to second-timers will be tripled to 15 percent.

Mr Khaw said this should cut the application rate for second-timers from more than 25 to a single digit.

HDB estimates the rate will drop to 8 or 9 applicants per flat offered.

However, the current allocation of 5 percent for second-timers will remain for BTO flats in mature estates and those offered through the Sale of Balance Flats Exercise.

Mr Khaw said this is so that first-timers can continue to enjoy top-priority in allocation.

He hinted that there may be further changes, as HDB will be studying the March BTO results before making the next tweak to balloting rules.

The allocation for Executive Condominiums will also be changed - second-timers will now have access to 30 percent of units.

Retirees looking to right-size their flats while aging in place will also receive more help.

HDB will launch 2,000 studio apartments this year, and many will be in the mature estates, said Mr Khaw.

To facilitate right-sizing, HDB has also introduced the Silver Housing Bonus and enhanced the Lease Buyback Scheme.

And responding to concerns from various MPs throughout the debate, Mr Khaw said his ministry is reviewing the CPF Retirement Account top-up criterion, which requires the proceeds from the sale of the flat to be put back into the CPF account.

Mr Khaw said he hopes to complete the review and announce details in a few months' time.

To support the elderly who prefer to remain in their neighbourhood, a new Ageing-in-Place Priority Scheme will be introduced.

Elderly applicants downsizing to a studio apartment, will be given double the number of ballot chances if the new flat is within 2 kilometres of their existing property.

This will also apply to elderly households downgrading from a private property.

HDB will also be building more flats in mature estates, including Bedok, Kallang, Whampoa and Geylang.

Thirty percent of BTO flats launched this year will be in mature estates - up from 14 percent last year.

Mr Khaw said this will allow more young families to benefit from the Married Child Priority Scheme.

The scheme will also be tweaked.

Currently, the scheme makes no distinction between couples living near or together with their parents, and the applicants get four ballot chances.

With the changes, first-time applicants who apply for a BTO flat to live with their parents will receive six ballot chances.

HDB will also introduce the Multi-Generation Priority Scheme to give more options for families to stay together.

Mr Khaw said: "Many Singaporean families want to live together, or at least near to one another. This forges strong families, besides making a lot of practical sense. Grandparents help to look after their grandchildren; grandparents remain active and healthy; children set good example of filial piety. These are strong values which we must inculcate."

Under the scheme, a larger flat is paired with a studio apartment or 2-room flat, allowing joint selection by a young couple and their elderly parents.

Those who are eligible and apply for the scheme will have priority in the queue.

Up to 250 pairs of such units will be launched in various estates, starting with the Bedok BTO project in March.

Mr Khaw said more attention will also be paid to Singaporeans who are in distress due to circumstances beyond their control.

This includes those who face a sudden death of a breadwinner, major illness of a family member or severe disabilities.

Mr Khaw said these are victims of misfortune and sometimes policies and rules "leave them cold on the wrong side".

The minister added that he has impressed on his MND colleagues that the default position is to try to say "yes" and give such victims a leg up at a time of need.

Wrapping up his speech, Mr Khaw said he shared MP Lee Bee Wah's concerns that the values of family, marriage and filial piety are getting diluted.

He cited the worrying signs of rising divorce rates and abandonment of parents.

Mr Khaw said MND policies must not unwittingly facilitate such negative trends.

Going forward, Mr Khaw highlighted three challenges that will shape the National Development Ministry's workplan.

One is preparing for an aged society.

Mr Khaw said more nursing homes and day care will be needed, but there is no one size that will fit all.

His ministry will have to try many more models to see which works.

Another challenge is maintaining Singapore's competitive edge as a world-class city.

Beyond a vibrant physical landscape, Mr Khaw said Singapore must cultivate a graciousness founded on the ethos of inclusiveness, compassion and kindness.

He said the work of his ministry, finally, goes beyond building homes - to building communities.

Mr Khaw said: "We used to live in kampongs where everyone knows everyone. There is a general consensus on how we can live together. We take care of one another, gotong-royong, and our little kampong.

"There are many reasons for the loss of the kampong spirit. But we need to find ways to encourage residents to own their community and to care for one another again. To be sure, there are areas in Singapore where the kampong spirit remains strong. I'm most proud and happy that in my constituency, the kampong spirit is very strong ... we need to find out how such spirit can be replicated in many more places."

Housing plight of vulnerable in spotlight
Ministry will treat truly needy cases with compassion: Khaw
By Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2012

THE plight of divorcees, widows and the poor came to the fore in Parliament yesterday, as a dozen Members of Parliament spoke out passionately for groups in society that have been disadvantaged by Singapore's public housing policies.

In response, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan pledged that the Government would 'strive to govern with compassion' and make exceptions for the truly needy.

At least three MPs brought up the plight of divorcees, who have to wait five years from the date a divorce is made final before they can buy an HDB flat or be listed as an occupier.

They also have to deal with a 30-month debarment period after selling their flats before they can apply for subsidised rental housing.

Highlighting cases where divorcing couples are ordered by a court to sell their matrimonial flats, Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) said it is unhealthy for single parents and their children to have to resort to sharing a confined living space with relatives because they cannot find another place to live.

'Instead of the standard policy of asking the divorcee to wait for a debarment period of 30 months, can HDB allow divorcees with children to rent a flat quickly? Alternatively, can they be allowed to buy a flat directly from HDB?' he asked.

Mr Khaw said his ministry was in fact 'sympathetic to divorcees', especially those with young children.

He noted that 670 rental flats were allocated last year to divorcees with children, making up more than 20 per cent of such allocations last year.

But he also cautioned that only truly special cases should get help, to avoid the potential for abuse.

'We must be mindful that divorcees do not form a homogenous group. In the West, many sympathetic rules designed to help divorcees get abused, with couples claiming such benefits even though their marriages are intact,' he said.

Other MPs asked if the ministry would consider allowing singles to buy new flats, adding that being single was often not a matter of choice.

Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) said many older singles who live with their parents often hope they can buy a flat of their own, but are held back as they are limited to more expensive flats on the HDB resale market.

Mr Khaw clarified that current regulations do allow singles above 21 to apply for a flat with their parents.

'Beyond that, I am still mulling over how to help singles,' he said. 'We must not unwittingly compromise on the promotion of marriage and mutual family support that we have long held.'

Mr Khaw added, however, that his ministry will always try to help Singaporeans in distress due to circumstances beyond their control, such as the sudden death of a breadwinner.

'These are victims of misfortune and sometimes our policies and rules leave them cold on the wrong side,' he said.

He said that although his ministry designs policies to cater to the vast majority of the population, with clear rules to prevent abuse or gaming of the system, it had to exercise compassion and treat deserving cases as special.

'For victims of misfortune, I have impressed on my MND colleagues that our default position is to try and say 'yes', to give such victims a leg up at a time of need,' he said.

Mr Khaw also responded to a call by Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) for his ministry to take action to protect families that get into trouble when they monetise their flats to pay off loan-shark debts.

He said he takes the issue seriously and will step up checks on prospective flat sellers to make sure they have a place to live in after their flat is sold.

Mr Khaw's comments were welcomed by Ms Jocelyn Chan, 21, a health-care worker, and her family. Ms Chan and her two siblings, aged 19 and eight, have been living with their 45-year-old mother in a one-room rental flat since their parents divorced two years ago.

Ms Chan and her mother approached their MP, Ms Lee Bee Wah, as they faced difficulties convincing the Housing Board that they could afford a three-room flat with their combined income of $2,700.

'It's frustrating that we cannot apply for a flat, even though my mother and I can afford it. All we hope is that they relax their regulations so my siblings can grow up in a healthy environment,' Ms Chan said.

More incentives to live with or near parents
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2012

STRESSING the importance of family ties as the bedrock of a strong society, the Government yesterday rolled out two new initiatives to encourage married children to live with their parents or near them in housing estates.

The first is to strengthen the Married Child Priority Scheme (MCPS) to give higher ballot chances to married children who apply to live with their parents in a new HDB flat.

The second, known as the Multi-Generation Priority Scheme (MGPS), allows married couples and their parents to buy a flat with a nearby studio apartment or two-room flat. This allows both parties to be close together while still according each a measure of privacy.

Announcing these schemes in Parliament yesterday, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that many Singaporean families want to live together, or at least near to one another.

'This forges strong families, besides making a lot of practical sense. Grandparents help to look after their grandchildren... Children set good examples of filial piety.

'These are strong values which we must inculcate,' he added.

Under current MCPS rules, a married couple buying a flat for the first time will have four ballot chances, and a second- timer two chances, if they want to reside with, or within 2km of, their parents.

The new rules, which take effect from this month's launch of new Build-to-Order (BTO) flats, will see the ballot chances for a first-timer couple increase to six chances and a second-timer three chances, if they live with their parents in their new flat.

The new MGPS was introduced in response to MPs' suggestions that the HDB build more integrated flats to encourage family bonding.

The scheme was piloted at SkyTerrace@Dawson, where a larger flat was paired with an adjoining studio apartment, allowing extended families to live next to each other.

Mr Khaw said HDB will launch 250 pairs of such flats in various estates this year, starting with the Bedok BTO project in March.

It will launch more if the scheme proves to be popular.

Given that the elderly parents of married children tend to live in mature HDB estates, Mr Khaw said his ministry will build more new BTO flats in these locations so that the young and old can more fully take advantage of the new schemes introduced.

'This year, there will be BTO launches in Bedok, Kallang, Whampoa and Geylang,' said the minister.

'Indeed, 30 per cent of BTO flats to be launched this year will be in mature estates.'

HDB is expected to roll out some 25,000 new flats this year.

Flats in mature estates are normally more sought after, as they come with amenities like schools and shops, and good transport links.

Applicants under the MGPS will have priority over others, as they will have the first dibs on choosing a flat nearby.

Home downgrading made easier for elderly
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2012

THE elderly were given special attention yesterday by the Ministry of National Development, with a new scheme that gives them a better chance of downgrading to a small flat within their existing neighbourhood.

Dubbed the Ageing-in-Place Priority Scheme, it will give the elderly applying for studio apartments double the balloting chances if the new flats are within 2km of their current homes.

Their balloting chances will increase to four times if they are also staying near their married children.

The scheme applies to all elderly home owners, even if they are currently staying in private housing.

Studio apartments are tailored for the elderly and sold on shorter leases. They also have several features to make life easier for the elderly such as hand bars and an emergency alert system.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that since they have been popular, the Housing Board will launch some 2,000 of such units this year. Many will be in mature estates.

He singled out retirees as a group that warranted special attention.

'Many have provided for their retirement and are comfortable, physically, socially and financially. But some are finding the cost of living a challenge,' he said.

These changes are part of the ministry's wider strategy in dealing with the impending 'silver tsunami', which will see one in five Singaporeans becoming over 65 years of age in 20 years' time.

'Many (of them) will be living alone because many Singaporeans have chosen not to get married. The whole texture of society will change. The built environment will need to evolve to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the older Singaporeans,' said Mr Khaw.

But he cautioned that there is much work ahead in solving the problem.

'We do not know exactly what will work. We will need to try many models to see which one works,' he added.

Balancing old and emerging housing needs
Editorial, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2012

HOUSING Board (HDB) policy adjustments made in response to societal changes have continued to be dynamic - and justifiably so. The spike in demand from 'second-time' applicants for executive condominiums in Punggol and Tampines, after quotas were raised for this group of home-buyers, is evidence that the HDB is attuned to current consumer sentiment.

However, judgment on the married-children and multi-generation priority schemes to promote closeness with aged parents must wait while applications feed through, though earlier variations designed to enhance family ties had been popular.

So, kudos to National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who has a well-developed sense of how regulations ought to be made flexible - or sympathetic, as he put it - to fit the changing needs of buyers.

It is right to also consider how much more flexibility to grant in helping other groups like divorcees and singles meet their accommodation needs. These groups are by no means forgotten for being at the 'wrong' end of a policy spectrum that promotes marriage and family, but they should not be made to feel in any way penalised for their social status. Their numbers have grown, partly because marital breakdowns occur for an increasing variety of reasons, and and partly because singlehood is not a matter of choice for many. As people would not presume to judge them on the basis of their status, social policy should not leave them out in the cold entirely.

Not for the first time has Parliament heard of divorced people who face difficulty because they cannot apply for a flat for five years after the dissolution of a marriage, and are ineligible for rental units for 30 months after they have sold their flats. These requirements can be tough on broken families with young children. To be sure, HDB has already been making exceptions for divorcees with children - they accounted for 20 per cent of the allocations of rental flats last year. Of course, there is always the possibility of abuse if housing rules are overly liberalised. At the same time, hardship may be felt if rules are not in step with changes taking place in society.

One such change is the growth of retirees over 65 who will form one out of every five Singaporeans in 20 years' time. For them, new housing initiatives, like the Ageing-in-Place Priority Scheme, will be welcome as they give them a better chance of downgrading to a small flat in their current neighbourhood. By helping them to maintain old social ties and, in some cases, to live close to their married children, the social fabric can be strengthened.

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