Friday, August 10, 2012

Home Today, Gone Tomorrow

In a country publicly defined by wealth and GDP, a good number of people have only the streets to call home. The PropertyGuru’s Cheryl Tay reports on the worrying prevalence of homelessness in Singapore.

Singapore is often hailed by its own government and those in business as a financial hub, seemingly immune to economic issues which plague other countries. Even as the Eurozone faces a severe sovereign debt crisis, Singapore boasts one of the world’s highest GDP per capita and continues to impress tourists and other foreigners with its infrastructure.



Of course, it would be unfair to assume that Singapore is ideal only for tourists and foreigners. The government has enforced laws to ensure that all citizens can live comfortably — public housing, in particular, is subject to a comprehensive set of rules and regulations to encourage home-ownership. Home loans, grants and schemes are available to first-timers, senior citizens and low-income households. In Parliament earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam uttered the infamous words: “Our enhanced housing grants for lower income families are such that a family with a monthly income of as low as S$1,000 can now purchase a small flat.”

The resulting backlash was telling. In an affluent country like Singapore, where everyone is promised a roof over his head, one may not think being homeless is a major issue. In fact, former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once proclaimed, “You go down New York, Broadway. You will see the beggars...where are the beggars in Singapore?”

But seemingly contradictory is Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivien Balakrishnan’s statement on the matter: “If you were a poor person, anywhere on this planet, Singapore is the one place where you will have a roof over your head, where you will have food on the table.”

AU CONTRAIRE

The numbers, however, tell a different story. From 2006 to 2009, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) picked up an annual average of 85 beggars. The MCYS website states: “Begging is an offence in Singapore under the Destitute Persons Act. Singaporeans in financial distress do not have to beg. They can approach the Community Development Councils, Family Service Centres or grassroots organisations for help.”

Despite this, MCYS reported picking up 389 homeless people in 2011, excluding those it may have missed and those already in homeless shelters. International news network Al Jazeera
caused a stir in 2010 when it reported on a Singaporean couple known as Samiah and Eddie, who had apparently lost their homes in divorce proceedings and were unable to rent due to government housing policies. In its video entitled Government Policies Force Some Onto The Streets, it was also alleged that tented communities in Singapore are “raided” by government authorities when discovered.
Dr. Balakrishnan disputed these findings in Parliament: “In Singapore, we have…cheap affordable rental housing as well as heavily-subsidised first-time entry into home-ownership. The people…who insist on staying in beaches and parks are not first-timers. These are people who have almost always sold their second or third flat (and) have unfortunately dissipated the subsidies and cashed them and now have run into problems.”

Whether or not Al Jazeera’s
report was indeed factual is still unclear. But the statistics beg the question of just how serious the homeless situation in Singapore is.
NEGLECTED OR NEGATED?

Andrew Loh, volunteer and Editor-in-Chief of PublicHouse.sg
, a website which publishes articles about social issues and significant events in Singapore, told The PropertyGuru: “There are various reasons why people become homeless, such as the inability to service their mortgage loans because of unemployment, ill-health or divorce. Whether the number will rise depends on various factors. However, the fact that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has pledged to build some 10,000 new rental flats shows that the problem is very serious.”
Interestingly, more comprehensive statistics on homelessness in Singapore are unavailable. But according to Leong Sze Hian, Past President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals and founding advisor of the Financial Planning Associations of Brunei and Indonesia, Singapore’s homeless shelters are always full, to the point where some of their occupants are evicted.

Loh, who has worked with and reported on homeless issues, partially confirmed this. “There are only three government-funded homeless shelters in Singapore, each with a capacity of about 40 people. This is grossly inadequate, especially when many homeless families have children. I’m not aware of eviction from homeless shelters but the homeless I have come across are given three- or six-month periods of stay. After that, they are expected to find alternatives.”

Interim rental housing is also insufficient. Loh opines, “I have seen en bloc flats — such as at Tiong Bahru — rented out to foreigners and expats. Perhaps the government could reserve these for homeless Singaporeans instead.”

While many of Singapore’s homeless were from the lower strata of society to begin with, the government has itself admitted that its dependence on foreign labour has depressed wages. Furthermore, certain laws seem to work against less privileged Singaporeans. Loh said: “Some laws and regulations need to be changed, such as those for divorcees or single parents, as well as HDB's rental policies. One of the issues we’ve encountered is that the HDB will not provide you housing if you've recently sold your flat. You have to purchase from the open market. With prices as they are, this is impossible for many, let alone the homeless and poor.”

Indeed, the affordability of public housing in Singapore must be called into question. One may wonder why, if HDB flats are as affordable as our ministers’ say, do many flat owners have to put their retirement savings in the red by using most of their CPF to finance their mortgages. Additionally, government measures to control home prices have not been very effective: though the median price of new homes fell three percent year-on-year in Q2, the median price of non-landed resale homes rose seven percent over the same period.

While BTO (Build-to-Order) flats are constantly being launched, with at least 20,000 to be built next year, not all prospective buyers are first-timers and not all first-timers can afford to wait for them to be built. Hence, they must look at resale flats, for which there is substantial cash-over-valuation (COV) and whose prices are ever increasing, compounding the issue of unaffordability.

As Loh succinctly puts it: “The HDB needs to be more compassionate. Ultimately, the government needs to address two issues: wages and employment opportunities, and flat prices.”

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