Monday, 24 September 2018

HDB upgrading programmes: Staying in good shape

With Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiling the latest HDB upgrading initiatives last month, Insight looks at the various programmes from the early days until now.
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 23 Sep 2018

On July 11, 1989, a seemingly innocuous question from Dr S. Vasoo in Parliament yielded a response that took many in the House by surprise.

The Tiong Bahru GRC MP had asked what improvement works might be undertaken in his constituency, which had some of the oldest HDB flats at the time.

But instead of a parochial scheme to address just one ward, then Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan announced an upgrading programme he described as heralding a "quantum change in the quality and character of public housing".

Before that, MPs had frequently raised as a concern the state of ageing flats, many of which were approaching 20 to 30 years old, with only piecemeal solutions being adopted to fix problems such as cracks in walls or lift breakdowns.

Mr Dhanabalan's announcement marked the start of the Main Upgrading Programme (MUP), an ambitious scheme to improve the interiors of flats, their exteriors and entire estates.

And, rather than have the HDB dictate what works should be done, town councils would seek the views of residents to determine what upgrades they wanted.

The MUP proved to be the first of several upgrading programmes announced over the past 29 years.

The latest was announced last month by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech, and is an expansion of a scheme already in place, the Home Improvement Programme (HIP). HIP is the main upgrading scheme now, and Mr Lee said it will be expanded to include 230,000 homes built between 1987 and 1997.

He also unveiled HIP II, a second round of upgrading for these flats when they are around 60 to 70 years old, which will start in about 10 years; and the Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS), which lets residents in selected older estates vote on whether they want to go en bloc as their flats near the end of their 99-year lease.

The schemes, ranging from MUP, which was completed in 2012, to HIP II, will have seen billions of dollars spent on upgrading Housing Board estates, with the work ranging from details such as grab bars for the elderly installed inside bathrooms to substantial infrastructure changes such as increasing the size of a flat and having lifts on every floor. The works were heavily subsided, with the Government fully funding some essential components too.

The inaugural MUP spruce-up kicked in in 1992, and since then, flats around 30 years old have been given a new lease on life, with the focus on fixing maintenance issues as the blocks inevitably age over time, and provision of additional amenities.

A total of 680,000 flats will have benefited from the major upgrading programmes - MUP and its successor, the HIP - and hundreds of thousands more from other estate renewal schemes.

Clearly, the maintenance of ageing HDB flats has long been a key government policy. Insight looks at how the upgrading programmes are a necessity to ensure the physical integrity of the country's public housing, and are also an important building block in terms of shoring up political support as part of the social contract between the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and voters.


When the Housing Board started in 1960, the aim was to encourage home ownership to create social cohesion and lay the groundwork for the country's long-term stability.

To fulfil that mission in the 1960s, the agency had to solve a housing shortage and encourage people more used to kampungs to take up residence in unfamiliar high-rise blocks.

Built cheaply and quickly to address the housing shortage in the early 1960s, these flats started to show their age quickly, having been made with "cheap design and cheap materials", as Mr Dhanabalan acknowledged. Among the complaints were cracking walls and ceilings, leaking pipes, clogged drains, dirty corridors and lift breakdowns.

As early as 1980, Dr Ong Leong Boon, the MP for Kim Seng, had said insufficient attention had been paid to the improvements of older estates, resulting in a "privileged sector in the new estates and the less privileged sector in the old estates".

He also complained that one of the blocks in his constituency, built by the HDB's predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust, had started to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, the MUP came at a time when the authorities noticed that the earliest flats, such as those in Toa Payoh, could not hold up to the glamour of newer flats in Pasir Ris or Bishan.

Determined to stave off an exodus of younger people leaving older estates for newer HDB towns or upgrading to private homes, the Government set in motion upgrading plans to keep flats and neighbourhoods liveable - plans that have continued over the next three decades.

"Architecturally and politically, you need to upgrade," notes Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) architecture assistant professor Chong Keng Hua. "Improving the living environment is a way to get people to feel proud of their homes. It is one of the ways that make a nation more resilient."


When Mr Dhanabalan announced the MUP, town councils - MP-led committees that handled the day-to-day management of Housing Board estates - were just a year old (the Town Councils Act was passed in 1988).

The upgrading programme, which could determine how much more attractive a precinct could be, gave town councils more responsibility.

Town councils were established, among other reasons, to give voters a way to evaluate an MP who would not just represent their views in Parliament, but also manage their estates well.

The upgrading programmes gave town councils expanded responsibility, since MPs would have to present to the HDB why their estates were suitable candidates for rejuvenation.

In 1992, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced that wards that voted for the PAP would be given priority for upgrading programmes. This was revived again at the 1997 General Election.

On the eve of Polling Day, Mr Goh went one step further: The Government would drill down to the voting patterns at the precinct level (clusters of around 10 blocks) in determining which neighbours to upgrade first. The strategy was employed in both the 1997 and 2001 elections, helping the PAP clinch 65 per cent and 75 per cent of the votes respectively.

But at the 2006 General Election, voters in opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir ignored the PAP's offer of $180 million in upgrading projects and stuck with their MPs - Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong, respectively - marking the demise of a strategy that critics found unfair.

These days, upgrading projects are still dangled as carrots, but in a far less obvious way, say some. SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan says of HIP II, a programme that can be rolled out only a decade from now: "It's effectively a campaign promise. The PAP is saying, 'If you consistently and continually vote for me, you will get all this.' "


Besides the political upside of such upgrading programmes, there is another more practical reason to spruce up HDB flats and estates: to prevent the deterioration of older flats and enhance their value.

Said PM Lee when he announced the expanded HIP: "We are determined not to let our public housing degenerate into ragged, squalid slums, which has happened in many other cities."

Upgrading works are a necessity to keep an ageing flat looking fresh and user-friendly, says SUTD's Dr Chong. "Every 20 to 30 years, you start to see the faults in a building, with spalling concrete being the most common," he adds. Spalling concrete happens when steel bars embedded in the ceiling slab corrode, which in turn causes the concrete cover to crack and bulge.

These projects help to ensure that an old flat, in a way, keeps up with newer building methods and the ageing demography, he says. Floor tiles in toilets, for example, have since been treated with slip-resistant coating under the Enhancement for Active Seniors programme to facilitate ageing-in-place.

But while upgrading is a core tenet of the Government's long-term plans, ERA Realty key executive officer Eugene Lim cautions home owners that it does not necessarily boost a flat's asking price.

"The HIP is designed to rectify physical obsolescence. It's a mid-life patch-up, not an upgrade," he says. "The biggest determinant of a flat's value is its age."

The only exception, he adds, is the Lift Upgrading Programme, which gave almost 5,300 blocks lift access on every floor. This helped owners get as much as 10 per cent more for their flats, he says.

Singapore University of Social Sciences labour economist Walter Theseira argues that without maintenance and upgrading works, the value of a property would depreciate even more.

"Even if it's a freehold condo, if the owner doesn't maintain it properly, the value would still go down year after year," he says. "Slowing down the rate of depreciation is also a form of asset enhancement."

In a written reply to Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat earlier this month, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said programmes like HIP keep flats in good condition so as to maintain their value even as they age.

Without them, home owners would have to undertake these works themselves, which he said could cost up to about $25,000 per flat. But under the programme, they pay a fraction of the price, with the Government footing the lion's share.


Beyond maintaining the economic value of a flat, however, is a less obvious motivation that the authorities are nevertheless concerned about: the fear of a perceived widening gap between public and private housing.

Dr Theseira says the upgrading programmes ensure that "public housing here never becomes associated with a form of lower-class accommodation" which has plagued many cities elsewhere.

As was the case in the 1990s, it is imperative that HDB homes remain an attractive option for Singaporean families.

"If HDB homes become slums, you'll have everyone wanting a condo, but mathematics dictates that only a minority can live there," says Dr Theseira.

"If that happens, you'll have a frustrated populace on your hands because they cannot achieve their basic aspirations or they might feel there's a big class divide."

Cynics may argue that the PAP is operating out of fear that it would be voted out, but Dr Theseira notes: "The reality is that upgrading programmes are a huge hidden subsidy that people don't realise the extent of, because it's (mostly) not coming out of their pockets."

Indeed, people are more likely to get excited about another Pinnacle@Duxton-esque Build-to-Order offering, which promises high resale value, or the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which all but guarantees a windfall for residents of older flats who get a new flat with a fresh lease and generous compensation.

In contrast, upgrading programmes are not as sexy, and also require residents to give the okay and fork out some cash. But that the programmes have become ingrained in the renewal plans here also shows their longevity.

In any case, upgrading is here to stay.

Says sociologist Chua Beng Huat: "Having encouraged the entire nation to 'invest' the largest portion of their retirement savings - their CPF - into public housing, the Government must thus bear responsibility to ensure that existing, and inevitably ageing, flats and estates maintain their competitive values against new and better designed flats and estate environment."

* Parliament: Older rental blocks eligible for next Home Improvement Programme, HIP II
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Oct 2018

Older rental flats will be eligible for Home Improvement Programme II (HIP II), a second round of upgrading for Housing Board flats that are around 60 to 70 years old.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong assured Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) in Parliament on Monday (Oct 1) that these blocks would benefit from the programme, just as many of them are eligible for the ongoing HIP I.

HIP II will be launched in about 10 years' time.

HIP II, as with the other redevelopment plan announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August - the Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS) - remained of interest to MPs, despite the Government's stand at last month's Parliament sitting that time is needed to work out many details.

In total, four MPs asked questions about the programmes, including Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who suggested some technologies the HDB could look into to slow down the deterioration of ageing buildings.

Mr Wong added that the authorities will ensure there is no wastage of public funds in planning both HIP II and VERS, which lets HDB dwellers vote to go en bloc and sell their ageing flats to the Government.

He was responding to Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), who was concerned about unnecessary expenditure on blocks which might go through HIP II, then be slated for redevelopment under VERS a few years later.

VERS will kick in in two decades, and compensation is due to be less generous than the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme, where HDB flats are compulsorily acquired for redevelopment.

Mr Wong added that technical details of how flats would be valued and priced would have to be worked out further, so as to ensure that VERS is implemented "in a way that is fiscally sustainable in the long term".

As for HIP II, which will focus on common maintenance issues in ageing flats, "we will also need to see how to pace the works to take into account fiscal sustainability and the capacity of our construction industry," said Mr Wong. HIP II is expected to cost billions of dollars.

Mr Wong also addressed safety concerns about flats as the buildings age, noting that there are existing regulatory and inspection regimes to ensure that HDB buildings are structurally safe, both during and after construction.

They include the Periodic Structural Inspection (PSI) regime that ensures that buildings are regularly checked for structural defects. For all residential buildings, the PSI requires that the inspection be carried out every 10 years.

But for older HDB blocks, said Mr Wong, the HDB requires inspections every five years.

"We will ensure that such regimes remain in place throughout the lifespan of our HDB flats, and will also continue to review our policies and benchmark against other high-rise high-density cities," he said.

No comments:

Post a Comment