Monday 30 July 2012

Not easy when families share flats

Scheme helps families with short-term housing, but conflicts lead to calls for review
By Desmond Lim, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2012

In the seven months that driver Neo Aik Chuan, his wife and two-year-old son have been living in their rented flat in Jurong, they have seen their share of neighbours squabbling.

They are part of a housing scheme for families that need temporary low-cost housing while waiting for more permanent homes. The Housing Board's Interim Rental Housing (IRH) scheme is unusual - under it, two families share each flat.

The families get their own bedrooms but share the living room, kitchen, toilet and shower, and split the utilities bill. Each family is expected to do its part to keep the shared space clean and tidy.

Mr Neo, 40, who is waiting for his three-room Bukit Panjang flat to be ready in 2014, said people often quarrel about sharing the common area in the flat or doing the household chores.

The police are also called in frequently when conflicts get out of hand. He said: 'We have quarrels even living with relatives. What more strangers?'

The Neos live in Block 63 Yung Kuang Road, one of four known as the 'diamond blocks' because of the particular shape formed by their interconnected common corridors.

Of the 456 flats there, 193 are shared rental flats under this scheme. Such rental flats are also found in Havelock Road, Toa Payoh, Bedok, Woodlands and Dover Road and house about 1,500 families needing short-term housing.

The HDB told The Sunday Times that co-sharing helps these families reduce their housing costs, and the operators running the scheme make an effort to pair families 'who are compatible, taking into consideration factors such as their race, household size, and religion'.

'As such, while some friction is inevitable between families who live in the same flat, it is kept to a minimum. Where necessary, our operators will also help to mediate between families,' it said.

It added that 'the majority of the families get along well, and only a minority may have some disagreements once in a while'.

Residents, grassroots leaders and Members of Parliament The Sunday Times spoke to, however, painted a somewhat different picture of life in these shared flats.

They say there is regular conflict over cooking, what is in the refrigerator, whether the place is kept clean or dirty, and even how family members dress indoors.

Part-time preschool teacher and mother of four Suzie Lawaty, 38, said she was concerned when her married, male co-tenant walked around the flat bare-bodied and switched the TV on while her children were studying.

'I've got a 17-year-old daughter. I go to work and worry about the safety of my children alone at home,' said Madam Lawaty, who has lived at Yung Kuang Road for about a year.

In the six months that housewife Linda Osman, 34, has lived in a shared flat, she has had unpleasant exchanges over whether she did her part to keep the flat clean.

She said: 'I mop the living room floor when they are out but they accuse me of not doing it. I don't know what else to do.'

Odd-job worker Louis Goh, 33, his wife and two children have been sharing a flat with an elderly couple for about eight months, and both families are Chinese Buddhists.

But there have been problems in the kitchen because the Gohs eat beef whereas the couple do not.

Taman Jurong grassroots leader Roland Choo, 45, said shared-flat tenants from Yung Kuang Road have been turning up regularly at MP Tharman Shanmugaratnam's Meet-the-People Sessions nearby.

Many want to change their co-tenants and some even produce police reports to back their request, he said. Some share their flats with bigger families and complain about using the toilet, especially in the morning.

The grassroots volunteers have roped in social workers from Lakeside Family Centre to help deal with these family squabbles and related problems.

Mr Choo said it was hard to help because the family complaining may sometimes turn out to be the problem themselves, and continue to have issues even after a change of flat.

'We try to mediate when one family approaches us, but if the other family refuses to meet us, we don't have the authority to compel them to come,' he said.

MP Lily Neo, of Tanjong Pagar GRC, said about two or three residents in conflict with their co-tenants show up each time she holds a Meet-the-People Session.

'It's been a continuous problem. In all my years as an MP, disputes among co-tenants are the hardest to resolve,' said Dr Neo, who has about 700 families under the scheme living in three blocks in her ward.

MP Zainudin Nordin of Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC has about 100 such households in his Toa Payoh East ward, and having dealt with regular complaints, thinks the sharing of flats should be relooked.

The most common disputes involve splitting utility bills and sharing household chores and common spaces like kitchens and toilets.

Conflicts often arise because of different habits and family size. Said Mr Zainudin: 'Disputes come when they say, 'Oh you have five in your family, my family has three. You watch TV, I don't watch TV, so you should pay more'.'

He said 'the discomfort of close proximity' could turn seemingly small disputes ugly and recalled a case last year when the parties exchanged blows and the police were called in.

Although families do need the short-term housing while waiting for their own flats, he felt the resulting social problems indicate there ought to be a longer-term solution.

Like Mr Zainudin, National University of Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat feels that the scheme needs to be reconsidered.

He said: 'It's not natural. If you put two families who are strangers and in dire straits under one roof, how can you expect them to get along?'

Unless the flat-sharing requirements are changed, cabby Tan Leh Beng's suggestion is that families just bear with the situation until they get their own homes.

The 49-year-old divorcee and her two children share a flat with a couple and their toddler.

She said the two families have had disagreements over the use of common spaces, but so far these have not escalated into ugly quarrels.

'We just close one eye to avoid quarrelling,' she said. 'You can't have clashes with some people. If I can avoid, I'll avoid.'


The Interim Rental Housing scheme was introduced in 2009 to provide temporary shelter for families in financial hardship and waiting for more permanent housing.

These families could be waiting for rental flats or downgrading to a smaller flat still under construction.

The HDB said most families stay for six to 12 months, but some stay longer while waiting for their new flats to be ready.

The rule for most is that two families share each unit, usually a three-bedroom flat. Families are matched according to race, religion and family size.

The rent is subsidised and each family pays about $300 a month, but this can be lower, depending on the family's income. Utility bills are split between the families.

About 3,000 families have lived in interim rental housing since the scheme started. As of last December, 1,500 families were under the scheme.

'These are families who would otherwise not have been able to find such short-term accommodation to tide them through a difficult period, or would have been forced to pay more in rent to private landlords,' said the HDB.

The six estates with these rental blocks are managed by private operators like LHN Group and EM Services.

Late last year, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the HDB will take a more active role of pairing families to minimise conflicts. The tenancy was also extended from six months to a year, and is renewable for up to two years.

HDB has allowed, on a case-by-case basis, families to live without a co-tenant if they have 'special medical conditions'.

No comments:

Post a Comment