When public housing falls short of the Singapore Dream

  • In the lion city, the inefficacies of the public housing model gives rise to heteronormative couples taking the lion’s share of Build-To-Order (BTO) flats, leaving older singles, LGBTQ+ couples, and minority races to fight over scraps in the rental and resale markets.
  • TheHomeGround Asia speaks to a single mother and a racial minority to hear their experiences, as well as an LGBTQ+ real estate advisor and founder of a non-discriminatory rental platform to find out the ways in which real estate can be reimagined in Singapore. 
(Photo source: Canva)
(Photo source: Canva)

Build-To-Order (BTOs) flats are the Singaporean equivalent of the American Dream. These days, young Singaporeans are “dangling” BTOs before proposing marriage, and some sit on these million-dollar nest eggs that currently take a decade to incubate, following the changes made in the Minimum Order Period (MOP) requirements. 

But just like the American dream, the nation’s public housing model is an inadvertent curation of what an ideal Singaporean looks like: young, affluent, and building a nuclear family. This leaves many marginalised communities — older singles, single parents, and the LGBTQ+ community — in the shadows. 

These communities have only the resale flats and the private real estate to park their housing dreams in, but these markets have their own set of problems, with discriminatory landlords being a trope so normalised among minority races and foreign nationalities that they have become a “non-issue” of an issue. 

No equal real estate opportunities 

A typical heteronormative Singaporean couple will most likely have a Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment key by the time they hit the age of 30, and will be sitting on a profit ranging from $200,000 to $300,000 when their flats are due for resale.

“In stark contrast, most of my clients come to me at age 35 or older,” says Mr William Tan, who provides real estate advisory for Prident, an LGBTQ+ collective aimed at providing financial literacy for the community. 

For queer individuals, feeling safe, accepted, and supported in the family home may be a luxury. Yet, many end up moving out in their 20s, and spend the next ten years or so of their lives renting a property before qualifying for an HDB apartment at age 35 under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme or the Joint Singles Scheme. 

And even then, as singles on paper, queer individuals are only eligible for two-bedroom units in non-mature estates, which often have fewer amenities and lower property values. This falls very short of having accesses to equal choices in the real estate for the LGBTQ+ community, says Mr Tan. 

“Ten years is a long and vulnerable period of loss,” he adds. “Because you’re renting so much, you’re not able to save much money.” Queer individuals will be 45 years old before they’re finally able to turn their properties into assets. 

Not protected by the law 

Due to the lack of recognition of same-sex marriage in Singapore, LGBTQ+ couples and their assets are not protected by divorce laws. “Our government policies do not have anything that’s written out for the community. So we need to find our own ways around the existing structures of housing policy,” says Mr Tan.

While he generally advises his clients that there are not many financial benefits from “locking both their names” into a single property, he agrees that this leaves queer couples vulnerable in cases of separation, accidents leaving them in a comatose state, or death. 

In such cases, partners are only seen as a friend or acquaintance in the eyes of the law, and will not be able to make decisions for the individual’s healthcare or financial affairs. 

“This is why I normally advise my clients that if they’re going to start marrying their finances and properties together, they should speak to an LGBTQ+ affirming lawyer to draw out an agreement in such situations,” he says. 

“It’s not the best solution, but things like a Will or Lasting Power of Attorney can act as a substitute to a marriage certificate and a guide for when things go south, especially for the queer community,” he adds. 

The rental and resale markets — good alternatives or still a privilege 

The lack of stringent profile requirements makes it a free and equal playing field for all — or so one might think. But when it comes to the rental market, it’s discrimination galore. 

“All kinds of discrimination happens in the rental market, whether it’s gender, race, or specific nationalities,” says Mr Tan. “Indians and nationals from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) get discriminated against the most. “ 

In June 2020, a post by Mr Siddharth Karthik went viral on Facebook. “It’s 2020, I am a Singapore Citizen, I served two years of national service… only for this sh*t,” he writes. “how would you feel if you were treated like you are ‘unwanted’ or ‘inferior’ in your OWN COUNTRY solely on the basis of your race or how you look?”

Mr Siddharth thinks that the government’s ban of landlords’ “preferences” is only one part of the solution to a tricky problem. “Legally, landlords are entitled to reject tenants under the name of a ‘profile mismatch’,” he says. “Policies won’t change behaviour because these are deep-rooted assumptions which lead to certain beliefs about a particular race.” 

More often than not, “preferences” arise because of varying lifestyle habits and cultural norms — which one would think are more readily accepted in a supposedly multicultural, metropolitan city. But Singaporeans, for the most part, have not moved on from stereotypes about “pungent curry smells”. 

“Instead of race or nationality preferences, these concerns can always be covered by additional clauses in the rental agreement, such as mandating ‘no cooking’, or returning houses in a certain contusion’,” suggests Mr Siddharth. “In short, these cases of preferential treatment can be very easily avoided.” 

While LGBTQ couples do not often face direct discrimination from landlords, the fear is of having Section 377A of the Penal Code — which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men — used against them in scenarios of conflict or disagreement. 

“When you sign a tenancy contract, there is always a clause that says tenants are not allowed to participate in illegal activities. There is always the potential that a landlord can use that as an excuse to expel the tenant when things go sour,” explains Mr Tan. 

Older singles, especially single parents, are also vulnerable to the horrors of the resale market. In April 2021, a single mother with a 16-month-old got assigned an almost uninhabitable rental flat after waiting for 18 months. 

With a child to care for, full-time quality employment may not be a possibility for single mothers, especially those who do not have the support of their families, says Ms Vivian Pan, who runs a support group for single parents on Facebook. As such, many can only afford subpar housing to raise their children in. 

Whether such an incident occurred in isolation is hard to say, but it does not deny that these are situations a heteronormative, affluent couple would face. 

Reimagining housing 

While most of these inefficacies require systemic change and governmental support, some are finding ways to reshape the real estate industry into a more inclusive space. 

“We felt that the rental space wasn’t really putting the tenant at the heart of the experience. While lots of other industries — like ride-hailing, for example — have made progress in being end-user oriented, real estate hasn’t,” says Ms Sophie Jokelson, co-founder of Cove, a platform aimed at reinventing the rental experience. 

With a passion for giving access to safe and comfortable properties for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, Ms Jokelson and her team have instilled a more holistic no-discrimination policy among the landlords they bring on board. 

“Typically, if you message a property agent in Singapore, one of the first things that they ask you might be, ‘what is your nationality?’ These are the kinds of questions we do not ask because we feel strongly about inclusivity,” she says, adding that landlords do not have the ability to veto tenants according to profile. 

These perks do not just cater to the marginalised. With increasing waiting periods and MOPs for BTO flats, more young couples and singles are opting for affordable co-living rental apartments instead. 

In the past five years alone, rental in Singapore has been growing at about 8 percent annually. Now, about 150,000 people are renting their homes in Singapore — around 11 percent of overall households. 

“I think more and more young people are starting to recognise that spending their money on rental is worthwhile because their lives are a little bit on hold if they live with their parents well into their 30s,” says Ms Jackelson. 

“What you gain from it is independence. If you’re a young married couple, enjoying those early years of marriage alone are important for the foundation of your marriage. And if you’re single, you can build a more singular sense of identity defined separately from your parents, which you can’t do if you’re living in their space,” she adds. 

Additionally, Mr Tan advises queer individuals to be more mindful of their spending. “If you want to break out of that mold of only having the option of buying a BTO when you’re 35, then you have to have enough savings at that age,” he says. 

Policies aside, Mr Siddhath adds that it’s about sparking conversations to help people remove their biases. “I am positive that I will continue to face challenges like these [as a minority], but I’m speaking out today in hopes that one or two generations down, this becomes a distant memory we learn from,” he says. 

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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