Single Room Shared Facilities Public Rental Scheme: Community Living for Low-Income Singles?
by YEO TOK LIN
Published 19 April 2023
Single Room Shared Facilities Public Rental Scheme: Community Living for Low-Income Singles?
The Housing and Development Board (HDB) recently announced plans for a pilot public rental housing scheme, where low-income singles live in their own rooms but share facilities with other residents.¹ Using the site of the former Anderson Junior College hostel, this Single Room Shared Facilities Public Rental Scheme pilot will commence from end-2023. This is just one of several initiatives that HDB has been taking to address the challenges faced by low-income singles, particularly in the rental market.
HDB Rental Situation for Low-Income Singles
Trends Regarding Low-Income Singles
It is estimated that 40% of households under the Public Rental Scheme are singles.² In light of Singapore’s shifting demographics, with a substantial increase in singles for all age groups in the past years, it can be expected that there will be an increasing proportion of low-income singles in need of rental housing in the coming years.³
HDB Rental Schemes for Low-income Singles and Their Limitations
To address these trends, HDB has implemented and trialled several initiatives.
Currently, the only permanent programme available for low-income singles to rent a HDB flat is the Joint Single Scheme, introduced in 1990.⁴ The programme allows for single Singaporeans above the age of 35 (except for widows and orphans) to rent a flat, as long as they apply together with another eligible applicant, such as a friend or relative. Typically, the income of such households does not exceed $1500, the applicants do not own any property, and they do not have children who can provide a stable residence for them. While HDB occasionally grants requests to individuals to stay alone, this is usually due to medical reasons, such as concerns over an illness spreading.
However, it has been noted that serious conflicts do occur between these tenants.⁵ Conflicts could arise over noise-related disruptions, threat of physical violence or even the spread of illnesses, all of which severely impact the living environment of the tenants.⁶ One method of resolving conflicts between tenants would be the installation of partitions in existing rental flats, at the request of the tenants. Simultaneously, this allows tenants to enjoy greater privacy, an important concern of many tenants.⁷ This arrangement is popular, with over 1200 partitioned flats as of November 2022.⁸
To further address the issue of conflicts between tenants, HDB launched the Joint Singles Scheme Operator-Run (JSS-OR) pilot in December 2021.⁹ This pilot allows for singles to apply for a rental flat, even if they have yet to find a flatmate. The operator, a social service agency, matches applicants together with another flatmate based on similar backgrounds and daily routines, in hopes of reducing the potential for conflict.¹⁰ Owing to the high subscription rate of the JSS-OR pilot thus far, HDB announced in March 2023 that the pilot would be further expanded, including 3 new additional sites that can house 600 more tenants. ¹¹
Single Room Shared Facilities Pilot
Despite the initiatives that HDB has taken to provide rental housing for singles, the issues of conflict and privacy still affect many single public rental tenants.¹² Furthermore, there remains a significant wait time of around five months for rental flats.¹³ This is largely due to the construction labour crunch that has delayed the sprucing up of rental flats, as well as the limited supply of rental flats in popular neighbourhoods.¹⁴ HDB has sought to address these challenges by expanding rental options, such as through this pilot.
Most noticeably about the Single Room Shared Facilities pilot will be the provision of a single room to an individual tenant. Each room of roughly nine square metres will contain basic furnishings including a wardrobe, table, chairs and a mini-refrigerator.¹⁵ On each level, 24 tenants will share common facilities such as a kitchen and common bathrooms. Additionally, the compound will also include activity rooms, laundry rooms and dining areas.¹⁶
The site of a former junior college hostel was picked as the existing infrastructure could be adapted to the pilot, reducing the wait time for possible tenants, in contrast to building an entirely new facility.¹⁷ Similar to the JSS-OR pilot, an operator will oversee the management of the site, helping to provide social support as well as maintain the premises.
What Do People Think?
A diverse group of consulted stakeholders, including members of academia, non-profit organisations and public rental tenants, gave their opinions on the pilot. Discussion focused on the topics of community living and personal space, although other aspects were explored.
Many saw community living, a feature unique to this pilot, as beneficial for tenants. Professor Phang Sock Yong, an expert consulted by the Ministry of National Development, asserts that the shared facilities and communal spaces would provide an opportunity for residents “to build their social networks”, as well as helping the operator “curate programmes for the residents”.¹⁸ Ms Lee Yean Wun of Kampong Kapor Community Services emphasised the importance of community living to “[become] more of a home than a space” to tenants.¹⁹ She also highlights the role of the operator to mitigate the occurrence of conflict between tenants, particularly over the use of shared amenities such as kitchens.
Some had more reservations about community living. One tenant remarked that it was not practical to have shared amenities, as she fears that others could take her things, and that the segregation of cooking and eating timings would be difficult.²⁰
In a Facebook post, AWARE Singapore commended the pilot. However, it raised concerns over the ratio of tenants to available facilities.²¹ The organisation also recommended that the scheme be available to vulnerable women under 35 years old who face family violence, but could not rent in the open market. In this regard, AWARE emphasised the benefits of a communal setting, as it can “foster mutual support” in “an environment free of abuse”.²² This is important as it provides a “safe space to gain stable footing” in the lives of vulnerable young women.
Professor Phang believes that the pilot would be “welcomed by low-income singles” who “prefer more privacy”.²³ Indeed, several interviewed tenants concurred with this, given their experiences of discomfort living with other tenants. Factors such as waking times and health concerns were reasons why they found the concept of a single room more attractive.²⁴
Community stakeholders offered alternate perspectives. Mr Firdaus Abdul Hamid, co-founder of The Kampung Bridge, commented that the pilot can provide “a much-needed refuge” for some of his organisation’s homeless beneficiaries.²⁵ However, he stated that having a personal space might not suit every applicant, as some tenants might require more support, such as those with mental health conditions.
Dr Ng Kok Hoe, senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, stated that the pilot, together with other recent schemes proposed by HDB, “reflect awareness” on the “inadequacies in the public rental housing system”.²⁶ He welcomed the move as “small steps in the right direction”, although he raised concerns over the eligibility rules of rental housing applicants in light of recent inflationary pressures.
Most tenants also felt that rental cost would be a key consideration if they were to consider joining the new pilot programme.²⁷
While this pilot has its distinct differences from other HDB rental schemes, the Minister for National Development Mr Desmond Lee stressed that this is a pilot that “may” or “may not work out”.²⁸ He places an importance on the lessons to be learned from the project, such as “adjustments to the space, configurations and ratio”. He also added that data from this pilot would be collected over its one or two year runtime to see its feasibility as a permanent public rental scheme.²⁹ As noted earlier, in the broader picture, this pilot can be seen as an acknowledgement by HDB of the issues that low-income singles face in the current public rental housing system. It reflects the growing willingness of HDB to attempt various solutions to mitigate these issues, even if not all proposed pilot programmes turn out to be successfully implemented.
¹ Ng, Michelle. "HDB to Pilot New Type of Public Rental Housing with Own Room, Shared Facilities for Low-income Singles." The Straits Times, March 13, 2023. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/hdb-to-pilot-new-type-of-public-rental-housing-with-own-room-shared-facilities-for-low-income-singles.
² Au-Yong, Rachel. "Those Who Stay in Rental Flats Make the Most of Their "Home"." The New Paper, July 30, 2018. https://tnp.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/those-who-stay-rental-flats-make-most-their-home.
³ Lim, Janice. "2020 Census: More Singles in All Age Groups; Slowest Decade of Population Growth since 1970." Today, June 18, 2021. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/2020-census-more-singles-singapore-all-age-groups-rate-population-growth-slowest-1970.
⁴ “Joint Singles Scheme is Established”. National Library Board, 2014. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/f216fbd9-63eb-49ef-b3d5-1f02217f64ef.
⁵ Desmond, Lee. “Ensuring Public Housing Remains Affordable, Inclusive and Liveable.” HDB, March 4, 2021. /https://www.hdb.gov.sg/about-us/news-and-publications/press-releases/04032021-Ensuring-public-housing-remains-affordable-inclusive-and-liveable.
⁶ Hikmah Md Ali, Nur, and Deborah Lau. "The Big Read: Under One Roof — The Perils and Promises of Living with Strangers as Co-tenants in HDB Rental Flats." Today, April 1, 2023. https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-under-one-roof-perils-and-promises-living-strangers-co-tenants-hdb-rental-flats-2142046.
⁸ Desmond, Lee. “Oral answer by Ministry of National Development on HDB allowing individuals to live alone in rental flats”. Ministry of National Development, November 9, 2022. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/newsroom/parliament-matters/q-as/view/oral-answer-by-ministry-of-national-development-on-hdb-allowing-individuals-to-live-alone-in-rental-flats.
⁹ Ng, Michelle. "Singles Can Apply for HDB Rental Flats to Be Matched with Flatmate under Pilot Scheme." The Straits Times, December 17, 2021. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/singles-can-apply-for-hdb-rental-flats-to-be-matched-with-flatmate-under-pilot.
¹¹ Desmond, Lee. “Keeping Public Housing Accessible for Singaporeans”. HDB, March 2, 2023. https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/about-us/news-and-publications/press-releases/02032023-Keeping-Public-Housing-Accessible-for-Singaporeans.
¹² Lee, Loraine. "HDB to Pilot New Scheme in Converted Student Hostel Allowing Low-income Singles to Rent Rooms on Their Own." Today, March 14, 2023. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-scheme-rental-flat-singles-2128111.
¹³ “Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on whether there are plans to increase the supply and model of Singapore’s public rental housing and interim rental housing”. Ministry of National Development, May 11, 2021. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/newsroom/parliament-matters/q-as/view/written-answer-by-ministry-of-national-development-on-whether-there-are-plans-to-increase-the-supply-and-model-of-singapore-s-public-rental-housing-and-interim-rental-housing.
¹⁴ “Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on applications for flats under the Public Rental Scheme in 2021”. Ministry of National Development, February 15, 2022. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/newsroom/parliament-matters/q-as/view/written-answer-by-ministry-of-national-development-on-applications-for-flats-under-the-public-rental-scheme-in-2021.
¹⁵ Ng, Michelle. "HDB to Pilot New Type of Public Rental Housing with Own Room, Shared Facilities for Low-income Singles."
¹⁸ Chew, Hui Min. "Own Room but Shared Kitchen and Toilet: Public Rental Tenants Have Mixed Reactions to New Scheme." CNA, March 17, 2023. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/public-rental-housing-single-room-shared-facilities-hostel-tenants-3351471.
²¹ “While it is commendable that tenants will be offered the privacy of their own rooms under this Single Room Shared Facilities pilot”. March 17, 2023. https://www.facebook.com/awaresg/posts/pfbid0jwmGTEGLVKhTUHELVXkzdNQGsgdJYCQkgekQGAPcR3app14UZYBck55jo9zhHZmDl.
²³ Chew, Hui Min. "Own Room but Shared Kitchen and Toilet: Public Rental Tenants Have Mixed Reactions to New Scheme."
²⁵ Lee, Loraine. "Gendered Floors, CCTV Cameras among Suggestions from Welfare Groups for HDB Pilot Letting Low-income Singles Rent Rooms." Today, March 16, 2023. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/volunteer-welfare-bodies-back-pilot-low-income-singles-rent-room-2130201.
²⁶ Chew, Hui Min. "Own Room but Shared Kitchen and Toilet: Public Rental Tenants Have Mixed Reactions to New Scheme."
²⁸ Ng, Michelle. "HDB to Pilot New Type of Public Rental Housing with Own Room, Shared Facilities for Low-income Singles."
Image: Credits to Straits Times (ST Photo: GAVIN FOO)