WP's Louis Chua says lowering BTO eligibility age to 28 for singles won't require 'major overhaul'

In response, Senior Minister of State Tan Kiat How said that considerations remain for lowering the eligibility age.

Matthias Ang | Ashley Tan | September 14, 2022, 04:51 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

Lowering the eligibility age for singles to apply for Build-To-Order (BTO) flats in Singapore from 35 to 28 years old would ensure that the housing needs of singles are met, and will not impact housing supply for young couples.

This was argued by Louis Chua of the Workers' Party during an adjournment motion in Parliament on Sep. 13.

Chua called for the lowering of the BTO eligibility age for singles, and reasoned that it would be a continuation of the government's existing efforts to expand housing options for singles.

Meanwhile, the Housing Development Board (HDB) will still be able to give priority to families.

"In fact, we believe lowering the threshold for owning HDB flats to 28 years would go a long way towards HDB’s stated aims for Singapore’s public housing to be 'inclusive' and to 'reflect the diversity of our society'," Chua said.

Demand-supply imbalance

Chua first provided some context by stating that Singapore is currently facing a housing demand-supply imbalance.

Although housing supply is set to increase by around 35 per cent over the next two years, and HDB plans to launch up to 100,000 flats from 2021 to 2025, Chua said this implies that BTO supply drops 20 per cent to about 18,400 flats in 2024 and 2025.

Furthermore, the average number of BTO flats launched between 2021 and 2025 is 13 per cent below the average number of flats between 2011 to 2015.

This imbalance is compounded by rising BTO application rates over the past decade.

Reducing eligibility age and making housing for singles more affordable

In calling for the reduction of the BTO eligibility age to 28 for singles, Chua explained that the average Singaporean would have finished their tertiary studies and spent some time in the workforce by that age.

"In that sense, they would have some chance to lead independent lives and steady their financial footing," Chua said.

This proposal was previously put forth by Leader of the Opposition and WP Secretary-General Pritam Singh.

Chua elaborated that a key consideration of meeting singles' housing needs is the affordability of flats.

Singles below 35 now have to buy either a private residential property, or rent a flat in the open market, both options of which are not pocket-friendly.

They also have the option of purchasing a BTO two-room flexi flat. But first-timers currently have access to financial support grants when purchasing flats, which singles do not have.

Although single buyers have access to housing grants and are able to buy smaller BTO units in non-mature estates, Chua suggested providing different levels of housing grants to singles on a graduated scale.

For example, grants provided for 28-year-olds are at a discount to the full enhanced CPF housing grants, with an annual step-up to the current eligible age of 35.

Trends change

With singles below 35 being excluded for BTO, "implicit" is the expectation that Singaporeans should get married before 35.

They are therefore also expected to live with their parents until then.

Although this "traditional life progression" might have been relevant back in the 90s, Singaporeans are now staying single for a myriad of reasons, and "not necessarily moving straight from their parents’ home into a matrimonial home," Chua said.

Data has also shown that Singaporeans are staying single for longer and getting married later.

Housing for singles and families should not be mutually exclusive

One of the key arguments against lowering the eligibility age is that flats should be prioritised for families over singles.

With regards to this, Chua made three points.

Firstly, data from past BTO exercises show that singles do not compete with young couples and families for the same type of flats in non-mature estates.

Young married couples overwhelmingly apply for three-room or larger BTO flats, whereas singles are limited to buying only two-room flexi BTO flats.

Lowering the eligibility age for singles to buy a BTO flat to 28 is thus expected to have a minimal impact on young couples’ likelihood of securing a flat, Chua opined.

Secondly, while Chua agrees that public housing policy should support and incentivise couples and budding families, it should not be mutually exclusive from expanding housing options for singles.

Marriage rates still rose after housing options for singles were expanded

Thirdly, the current policy measures have been described as imposing “anti-single penalties", Chua stated.

These "unknowingly becomes signals to singles that their marital status, whether by their own volition or not, is viewed as undesirable and undeserving of government support for home ownership".

Chua pointed out that another key argument against singles owning flats is "that it is somehow in conflict with the Government’s goals of encouraging marriage and family formation".

He continued that if this hypothesis were true, a dip in marriage rates would be observed for singles over 35 who are able to buy their own flat.

However, data from two periods where housing options for singles were expanded, in 1991 and in 2013, showed that marriage rates rose.

Although Chua reckoned that this could have been a coincidence, the data suggests that "we need not be too circumspect about expanding HDB options for singles as a factor that will singlehandedly cause a further delay or decline in marriages".

Not calling for "major overhaul"

Chua concluded that the adjournment motion does not require a "major overhaul" to existing policies.

Instead, he hopes that the government can take "urgent and decisive steps" to increase the supply of public housing and address the demand-supply imbalance, as well as lower the BTO eligibility age to 28.

He said:

"As elected Members of Parliament, we are given a mandate from and by the people we serve. We therefore must lend a listening ear to the generation ahead of us and ensure that our public housing policies are both inclusive and reflective of the diversity of our society."

Tan Kiat How: Government has been engaging Singaporeans on housing

In response to Chua, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and National Development Tan Kiat How said that ensuring affordable and accessible housing for Singaporeans has always been an important priority for the government.

Tan cited the year-long long-term planning review (LTPR) as an instance of the government's outreach in which over 15,000 Singaporeans shared their housing aspirations and needs.

This included young couples who shared their anxieties of getting a flat in a bullish property market, older singles who voiced their desire for a place near their ageing parents so that they can better care for them, and younger Singaporeans who have voiced their desire for personal space and their own homes.

Government needs to prioritise because of land constraints

Tan said that while the government wanted to meet the needs of all Singaporeans, it is necessary to allocate and prioritise within the constraints of limited land resources.

Thanking Chua for recognising such constraints, Tan said this is why public housing has been prioritised for those who have more urgent housing needs through the implementation of BTO eligibility criteria for married couples and singles.

In addition, the government has been taking steps to raise the housing supply, Tan pointed out.

This includes working with the construction industry, which was severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, to ramp up the BTO supply with up to 100,000 flats until 2025, if demand and circumstances warrant, he said.

As for the demand for BTO flats, Tan said, "Although the application numbers have risen and are increasing, four in 10 applicants did not choose a flat when invited to do so. We are monitoring the supply situation, application rates and the locations where application rates are elevated."

Government has been trying to accommodate the needs of singles

Tan also said that the government has been "trying" to accommodate and support the needs of singles.

The minister cited the following changes that had been put in place for the BTO allocation quota for singles:

  • Opening access for singles to purchase new two-room flats from HDB under the Single Singapore Citizen (SSC) scheme in 2013,
  • Raising the allocation quota for two-room flats in 2015, from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the non-senior quota in the non-mature estates.

The BTO allocation quota has also been increased to support all first-timers, including singles, he added.

This includes increasing the non-senior quota for singles from 50 per cent to 65 per cent with effect from the August 2022 BTO exercise onwards.

Eligible first-timer singles can also qualify for various housing grants, he added. These grants include up to S$40,000 for a new flat purchase and S$80,000 for a resale flat purchase.

Considerations remain for lowering the BTO eligibility age from 35 to 28

On this issue, Tan said that it was a matter that had been discussed before.

It was also brought up by many Singapore as part of the LTPR conversations, and will be engaged by the government as part of the Forward Singapore discussions.

Tan pointed out that considerations still remain and elaborated:

"There are binding constraints in our land resources as well as the implications on the housing market with enhanced demand, bearing in mind that supply is inelastic, but demand can change very quickly. This might lead to higher prices and those at the margins – such as the elderly singles, single parents, and those with urgent housing needs – might be squeezed out."

Top photo from Getty Images and MCI / YouTube