Mothership Explains: What's up with Prime Location HDBs excluding singles while being 'inclusive'?

It kinda makes sense if you really try to put yourself in the government's shoes, but still stings if you don't have plans to marry.

Nigel Chua | November 28, 2021, 10:22 AM

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About a year ago, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said that HDB flats in prime locations will not be exclusively for the rich.

Lee said that this would be achieved through ensuring that new Housing and Development Board (HDB) projects in prime locations include various types of housing, such as rental flats and smaller HDB flats for lower-income families and the elderly, and through placing limits on resale transactions, to keep their prices from ballooning over time.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the housing model for the new "Prime Location Public Housing (PLH)" flats have come with increased restrictions, including a 10-year minimum occupation period, and a requirement for owners to pay a portion of their sale proceeds back to HDB, if and when they sell their flats.

One other aspect of the announcement touched a raw nerve, however: These PLH flats would not be open for purchase by singles, whether directly from HDB at the time the projects are launched, or from owners seeking to resell their flats.

In contrast to existing rules for non-PLH flats, the new rules for PLH flats don't allow singles to purchase PLH flats on the resale market.

This — to many single Singaporeans — was the latest setback in what is an already-uphill battle to carve out their own space in public housing policy that still greatly favours the traditional nuclear family.

What made it all the more jarring was the fact that the new PLH projects were framed as "inclusive and diverse", even while they excluded single Singaporeans.

Lee said:

"Ultimately, we are rolling out out the new PLH model because we believe that our neighbourhoods, including those in prime central locations, should reflect the inclusiveness and diversity of Singapore’s society. This is a core value that we believe in." (emphasis ours)

So... what happened here?

Did the government set out to exclude singles?

Two days after the announcement of the PLH model, Lee came out to address this point, in his keynote speech at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum 2021 on Oct. 29.

He said that it is "not our intention to exclude anyone from these prime locations".

It's important to realise that Lee referred to "these prime locations" and not "these Prime Location Public Housing flats".

Allowing everyone and anyone to purchase a PLH flat would defeat the purpose of building them, which is to prevent prime locations from becoming exclusive to the rich.

Even if new flats in such prime locations were priced affordably at launch, they would naturally exclude non-rich homebuyers eventually, because resale prices would eventually rise according to demand.

Thus, to keep prime locations from becoming exclusive to the rich, some options need to be exclusive of the rich — to prevent rich property owners from buying up all the living space in these prime locations and relegating the rest of us to the far-flung fringes of Jurong West, Woodlands North, Punggol North, and Tampines East.

This explains why the initial announcement of PLH flats could still be justified as being focused on inclusiveness, even while they excluded certain categories of people.

In other words, to keep the prime locations from becoming exclusive, the PLH flats would themselves need to be exclusive.

It just so happened that together with the rich, singles were excluded.

So how did singles end up excluded?

We know that singles were excluded because of the application of BTO criteria, not just for new PLH flats, but also resale PLH flats.

As Lee said in his speech on Oct. 29:

"Some have also asked why singles aren’t allowed to buy PLH flats, even on the resale market. This flows from our BTO criteria, which currently allow singles to buy new 2-room flats in the non-mature estates."

But how did the BTO eligibility criteria come to be selected?

Again, from Lee's Oct. 29 speech:

"We settled on the BTO eligibility criteria, as an objective set of means-tested conditions that Singaporeans are already familiar with."

Lee's statement reveals three factors leading to the selection of the BTO criteria to determine eligibility to purchase resale PLH flats: "objective", "means-tested", and "familiar".

A closer look at these factors might leave you with more questions, however, as only one of them (that the criteria is "means-tested") contributes to the end-goal of keeping prime locations inclusive.

First of all, Lee's mention of the conditions being "means-tested" could refer to two of the BTO conditions in particular:

  • The income ceiling (currently S$14,000 for most applicants), which is meant to ensure that those who earn more than the income ceiling do not compete for the limited numbers of government-subsidised flats.
  • The requirement to dispose of private property at least 30 months (i.e. 2.5 years) before applying, which works as a disincentive to those who might be wealthy in terms of assets, although they are below the income ceiling.

Lee pointed to Singaporeans being "familiar" with the BTO criteria as a reason for it being selected. However, wouldn't an unfamiliar criteria (for example, an income ceiling lower than S$14,000) have done even more for the stated objective of the PLH model?

And finally, Lee's reference to the BTO criteria being "objective" might invite questions of why non-traditional households (such as groups of singles, and single parents) are excluded.

An objective criteria, some might say, should be applied impartially.

After all, not much distinguishes two singles who want to live together from a married couple with no children.

Another part of Lee's speech talked about "prioritising [PLH flats], for now, for larger households who may need more space for more people in their families".

But this could then attract the further question of why married couples with no children, and no intent to ever have children, are allowed to buy PLH flats while singles (or even "larger households" comprised of singles) are not.

Where do we go from here?

After Lee explained why singles were excluded from PLH housing, he ended that segment of his speech on a conciliatory note, by talking about making "adjustments and improvements along the way, bearing in mind the evolving demographics of Singapore and changing aspirations of Singaporeans."

But what does this mean? Does it mean that the government will create more options for singles, if/when they become a larger segment of the population?

Shouldn't the famously forward-thinking Singapore government be planning ahead for the sake of this growing demographic?

After all, years of pro-marriage and pro-family policy have not stopped the proportion of singles from rising.

All of this points to something much bigger than whether singles can buy PLH flats. That is, the wider, underlying issue of the place of single people in government policy and in Singapore.

Lee said in his speech that more options have been made available to singles over the years, which is true — most recently, for example, allowing Singaporean singles over 35 to apply for a public rental flat without first finding a flatmate from earlier this year, and allowing them to buy two-room units directly from HDB under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme since 2013.

A conciliatory tone

In fact, his acknowledgement about singles took on a far more conciliatory tone. Lee went as far as to state unequivocally that the government recognises the needs of singles, saying:

"[Singles] may wonder if we care about their housing needs. To these Singaporeans, let me assure you: We do. We recognise your needs, your aspirations, and your sacrifices."

This is a sharp contrast from what then-Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan said just thirty years ago — that it would be "wasteful" to allocate one flat to just one person, while proposing to bar singles from purchasing HUDC flats.

Singles in 2021 might thus take some comfort in Lee's words, which seem to promise that the government will continue to do more to accommodate this growing demographic.

A question of pace

But is the growing range of options for singles keeping pace with the rising proportion of singles in the community?

Whether or not this is the case will likely determine how any future change in housing policy is received by this group of Singaporeans.

For now, however, the discussion surround PLH flats is likely to continue for a while, given that more of such flats can be expected soon, such as those at the Greater Southern Waterfront.

We know that singles won't be allowed to buy these flats either, and that the eligibility requirements might only be reviewed at the halfway mark of the 99-year lease of the first PLH units in Rochor.

Given that the primary objective of the PLH flats is to keep housing in prime areas affordable for non-rich families, instead of having them include all of Singapore's different demographic groups, perhaps future government messaging should focus on the PLH projects' main feature of affordability, rather than inclusiveness.

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top photo via HDB

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