TL;DR – Public housing is affordable but we explore what else is needed in a good public housing system.
Introduction to Public Housing in Singapore
The city state’s philosophy with regards to public housing was always to provide quality and affordable housing for the nation and to this date, Housing & Development Board (HDB) flats are home to 80% of Singapore’s resident population.
Established in 1960, the Housing & Development Board was given the task to transform “unhygienic slums” and “crowded squatter settlements”.
Currently, more than 1 million HDB flats have been constructed across 23 towns and 3 estates. Back then, home ownership was also at a low of 9%.
Singapore as a “home-owning society” was a vision of our founding prime minister the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who firmly believed that that was a condition essential for political, economic and social stability. Letting Singaporeans “own” their homes would also increase their ownership towards their country as they now had a stake in nation building.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (MND Singapore Pinterest)
Financing a HDB flat
One of the key pillars of Singapore’s public housing system is that it is to be affordable, within the reach of the majority of Singaporeans. To enable Singapoeans to better afford their homes, the Government started in 1968 to allow the use of savings from the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to service monthly mortgage instalments as well as lump sum downpayments. This, in addition to various schemes and grants, made HDB flats and home ownership something that a majority of Singaporeans could aspire to.
1) Enhanced CPF Housing Grant
In September this year, the Government further fine tuned the housing grant scheme, with the new Enhanced CPF Housing Grant replacing both the Additional Housing Grant and Special CPF Housing Grant.
Under the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant, first time buyers who wanted to buy a new or resale flat would be eligible for grants up to a whopping $80,000, given that you fall within the $9,000 income ceiling. Previously, grants like the Special Housing Grant was only available to you if you were applying for a flat in the non-mature estate that was 4-room or smaller.
Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (HDB Facebook)
2) Family Grant
Apart from the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant, the Family Grant is for first-time buyers of resale HDB flats or Executive Condominiums. This grant doles out between $30,000 to $50,000 to offset costs of buying a home at prevailing market rates and first time buyers have to have a household income of less than $14,000 to qualify.
Breakdown of Family Grant (HDB website)
3) Proximity Grant
For homeowners who are buying a resale flat in the same town or within 4 km of where their parents are staying, they would be eligible for a $20,000 grant. For those who will be living in the same flat as their parents, they would be able to get a $30,000 grant.
This scheme encourages homebuyers to consider options near their parents for mutual support and care.
Infographic of Proximity Grant (HDB website)
The Enhanced CPF Housing Grant, Family Grant and Proximity Grant are in place to help ensure HDBs remain affordable to Singaporeans. We speak to several people who have benefited from these schemes past and present and see what life is like for them in their HDBs.
Steven’s story – 5 kids in a HDB
Steven brought us back in time to 17 years ago when he and his wife, Laifong, first started working. Laifong was living in her family home in Ang Mo Kio back then, and her mother got to know of her neighbour two units away who had wanted to sell their 3-room HDB flat.
The price of the flat was quite reasonable at $130,000 and once they factored in the $30,000 first-timer housing grant and $10,000 proximity housing grant for living near parents, the price came down to a very affordable $90,000.
When they were expecting their fourth child, Steven and Laifong suddenly found themselves faced with a choice of going ahead with upgrading to a 5-room BTO they had applied for earlier, or to buy the adjoining 3-room flat next door under the Conversion Scheme since their neighbour was moving out.
The couple quickly did their sums. The asking price of the flat next door plus the $90,000 he had paid for their existing flat combined was still under the price of a 5-bedroom BTO in the same area. During that time, a 5-room BTO at Ang Mo Kio would have set the couple back about $510,000 after grants.
Steven recalled how he and his wife gave up their BTO allocation in favour of knocking down the wall between the two adjoining 3-room units to form a jumbo flat with enough space for all.
“We split the housing loan 50-50 and our CPF is able to completely cover it.”
Steven shared that for their housing loan, he and his wife split 50-50 and it is completely covered by CPF, freeing up finances for day to day expenses. They even budget for a yearly family holiday – Japan being their next destination.
The family of seven have a unique sleeping arrangement, choosing to bunk in all together in an elongated bedroom, made from knocking down the walls between two bedrooms. Their configuration of two king sized beds and one super single on the floor seems the perfect combination to fit all seven of them.
And so it is, even for the sandwhiched class with a big family, there are grants and options available to help households manage housing costs.
Jon’s story – Starting a family in a home of our own
Jon and Felicia were very lucky, while most couples have to go through a few rounds of balloting, they got their home on their first try. Their lovely abode is tucked away in a cosy corner in Bedok – Fengshan Greenville and the 4-room BTO, which cost on average $400,000 is perfect for their family of 3. As first time home buyers a few years ago, they qualified for grants and were able to get $15,000 shaved off the cost of their home.
“It was a relief to be able to use our CPF to cover a good amount of the cost, instead of cash upfront. In fact, the loan is fully covered by CF, without the need for out-of-pocket cash.
Jon shared that cash flow is important for young couples as well as for young parents, who would be saving up for their children’s future needs. For them, they really wanted some liquidity and flexibility in getting their HDB renovated to their desired style. Because their BTO was relatively affordable after grants, they were able to set aside $50,000 for renovations.
Bob’s story – The very #instaworthy #bobsretirementhome
A purveyor of all things beautiful and a tastemaker in his own right, we are quite sure that Bob Mubarak’s home would be as #instaworthy as they come. A Business Manager with one of the leading bridal resource portals in Singapore, SingaporeBrides.com, Bob has a keen eye in design and put a great deal of thought behind the design of his 4-room resale flat in Bukit Panjang.
Bob had bought his flat for around $350,000 in late 2016 and as with 80% of first time home buyers, he was able to completely cover the monthly mortgage installments with his CPF. This meant that he does not need to pay any cash out-of-pocket.
Bob bought his home under the Single Citizen Scheme, which looks at helping pockets of Singaporeans who remain single to own their own home.
The Single Citizen Scheme was first rolled out by HDB in 2013 and it allows singles who are 35 years old to purchase HDB flats. Singles can choose to buy BTO or resale flats. They can apply for 2-room BTO Flexi units at non-mature estates and for resale units, there are no restrictions on location or size; so singles who want bigger flats or want their flats immediately will usually go the resale route.
Infographic on Singapore Citizen Scheme (HDB Facebook)
Singles can receive up to $25,000 for the Singles Grant, up to $40,000 for the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant and up to $15,000 for the Proximity Housing Grant. Added together, these grants offer a significant subsidy on the price of a new 2-room BTO or resale flat and makes it possible for Singaporeans to own their home on one person’s income.
To Bob, this meant freeing up cash that he could put towards renovating his dream home, shelling out $46,000 to achieve his black-and-white colonial style look with open-concept kitchen.
He is even toying with the idea of selling his house after the Minimum Occupancy Period is up, pocket the extra cash, reduce his debt and downgrade. Bob’s experience is testament to Singapore’s public housing system being able to help singles own their own HDB affordably and possibly even enabling them to further monetise it.
Zuraidah’s story: A single mum’s journey from renting to being an owner
Zuraidah was only 26 years old when she got divorced from her ex-husband and with two young kids in tow – a 4 year old and a newborn, life during their period of time was challenging. She yearned for a place to call her own and in 2003, decided to apply for a rental flat. Her application went through and 3 months later, she moved to a rental flat in Lengkok Bahru.
Her faith in love was renewed when she met her current husband and married him in 2005. They went on to have another 2 children of their own and their humble rental flat was now home to 3 adults (including Zuradiah’s mother) and the 4 children. Zuraida took time off from work to care for the children and approached the Community Development Council for help. They were able to offer some financial assistance for our rent and electricity as well as $350 a month to put food on the table.
When her youngest turned 4, she made the decision to go back to work. She secured a role at an eldercare centre, taking in a steady income with employer CPF contributions (as well as Workfare).
“I want to own my own home”
With the idea of wanting to own home always being on her mind, Zuraidah and her husband made an exciting decision in 2013. They decided to stop renting and instead purchase a home. They successfully balloted for a 3-room BTO flat in Sengkang which cost $189,000 and utilised the first-timer grant as well as use their savings in CPF to offset the down payment.
The $350 mortgage installment that Zuraidah and her hubby had to fork out for their 20-year loan was actually cheaper than the $450 for rent that they were paying. She even went on to help her own sister plan and apply got an HDB.
Graphic: Benefits of owning your HDB vs renting one (Source: gov.sg)
Zuraidah’s long but fulfilling journey to home ownership is nothing short of inspiring, showing that adequate grants and subsidies coupled with hard work and grit, will not stop anyone from owning their own home, even if they are from low income households.
HDBs are affordable – But is it enough?
After speaking with various people, we’ve established that Singapore’s public housing system has done a good job in helping citizens own homes affordably through a combination of keeping prices of Built-To-Order flats low and generous grants.
But is that enough? We dare say that the mark of a good public housing system is that it not only helps citizens own homes affordably but has in place programmes to enable HDB flats to retain their value and/or monetise their flats if need be. Let’s explore further.
Helping homes retain value through home improvement
The Housing and Development Board of Singapore currently runs the Home Improvement Programme (HIP), which is designed to resolve common maintenance issues of ageing flats. It is a heavily subsidised programme by the Government, which bears from 87.5% to 100% of the costs. There are the two types of works that are typically covered by the HIP.
- Essential works – mostly structural (cracked concrete, replacing ageing waste discharge stack, replacement of pipe sockets etc). For these works, the government bears 100% of the costs.
- Optional works – jazzing up fixtures such as upgrading toilet bowl and bathrooms, installing new doors/metal grille gates etc. These works are heavilty subsidised with the Government taking on between 87.5% to 95% of the costs.
Every HDB flat will go through an estimated two HIP upgrading exercises in the span of its 99 year lease, ensuring that residents get to have their homes refreshed and have the option of upgrading certain fixtures in their homes.
Caring for an ageing population – EASE HDB Scheme
With an ageing population in mind, HDB has also rolled out the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) scheme which could include improvements such as installing grab bars in toilets, anti-slip treatment for slippery floor tiles, ramp installation for easy access. An important feature about the EASE Scheme is that residents can opt for it even if their own block of flats have not yet been selected for HDB’s HIP upgrading exercise. This makes sure that eldery citizens who need such enhancements get them.
Payment breakdown for EASE Scheme (MoneySmart)
Monetising to supplement retirement income
Apart from helping HDB flat owners retain the value of their homes, HDB has also recommended 4 methods in which homeowners can unlock the value of their homes and monetise to supplement their retirement needs.
- Renting out the whole flat
A great option for elderly who can make alternative accommodation arrangements. They will be able to receive rental income and put that towards retirement.
- Renting out a room
For those who might not have alternative accommodation yet have a spare room to rent out. They can still stay in their flat while receiving some rental income.
- Right-sizing with Silver Housing Bonus
For elderly to consider right-sizing to a smaller HDB flat – either from the resale
market or from HDB itself (2-room or 3-room Flexi flat). They will receive a Silver Housing Bonus of up to $20,000 if they use some of the net cash proceeds to top up their CPF Retirement Account. Any balance from the sale after CPF top-up can be kept by the owners.
- Lease Buyback Scheme
For elderly who do not want to move from their HDB. Selling the tail-end of the flat’s lease back to the Government will enable them to monetise and receive a steady stream of income while continuing to have a roof over their head.
Yvonne’s story – Forget privacy, I love the companionship
Yvonne, a single lady in her 60s, calls a 3-room HDB flat in theToa Payah estate home. She is semi-retired and occasionally takes on contract jobs that are not too “stressful”. Even though her HDB flat has been fully paid for, Yvonne rents a room to another lady to the tune of $600 a month. For Yvonne, while the $600 might come in handy and it’s always advisable to save for a rainy day, Yvonne is more interested in the companionship. This option of renting out one room helps her achieve both objectives.
“I don’t really need that extra $600 income now, but it might come handy in future. But more importantly, I don’t feel so lonely when I have a housemate.”
The Lee family’s story – Cashing out without compromising privacy
Mr and Mrs Lee are in their 70s. They have been staying in their fully paid-up 3-bedroom HDB at Sembawang for the last 20 years. Their children are married with their own houses and do not stay with them.
The Lees love their home and are comfortable staying in their existing house, preferring not to move elsewhere. So while they have the option to rent out their spare rooms for income, they much rather have their own privacy. As such, they opted for the Lease-Buy-Back Scheme (LBS) which would give them a cash balance of $38,000, a lifelong monthly income of $720 and a cash bonus of $10,000.
Rounding up the conversation about housing
The public housing system of Singapore has done well in terms of helping home buyers from various segments of the population – young couples, sandwiched class, low income, singles, elderly etc afford to buy a home of their own. The Government continues to be generous in the amount of grants doled out, making HDB flat ownership within reach for a significant part of the population, with schemes helping those of the lower income even more.
But it should not stop there. The Government needs to continue upgrading and improvement efforts in a bid to help homeowners retain the value of their homes. And while the four options to further help the elderly monetise their homes are a good initiative, the Government needs to continually gather feedback on such schemes and continue refining policies to help eldery supplement their retirement income.
With all this machinery working towards benefiting citizens, we can then truly have a public housing system that is a cut above the rest.