Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Illegal dorms crowd out Tiong Bahru's charm

SOME landlords in the heritage-rich Tiong Bahru estate are cashing in on the demand for cheap housing by converting conserved pre-war flats into dormitory-style housing for foreign workers.
Residents are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact on their estate and have complained of noise, littering and overcrowding.

A Straits Times check last week uncovered several units ranging from 800 to 1,300 sq ft in size housing as many as 24 tenants in each flat.

Resident Chris Kwek, 33, said he has no qualms about living near foreign workers, mainly from China and India, but the transient nature of their stay means they tend not to take care of the estate.

Rubbish is strewn on the streets, unsightly rows of clothes are hung outside the units and some tenants even dump unwanted bulky items in common areas.

A Chinese worker who wanted to be known only as Mr Wong, 28, said people like him sometimes do not have a choice of accommodation. Many pay a lump-sum fee to an agent in China, who arranges for a flat, and they have to live there for six months to a year or lose their money. The monthly rent is about $200 each.

Some simply cannot find cheaper housing in city-fringe locations and have to accept cramped conditions. 'We have to get used to it since we have no choice,' Mr Wong said in Mandarin.

His landlord is a 40-year-old Chinese citizen turned permanent resident, who rents flats and then sub-lets them to workers. And he is just one among many in the estate, said residents.

Using private residential estates for dorm-style housing is illegal, yet many landlords have built sizeable businesses.

Mr Wong's landlord, for example, 'operates' four units, each about the size of a three- or four-room HDB flat and rented for about $2,000 a month. With 24 tenants in one unit paying around $200 each, he makes almost $3,000 in profit from each flat each month.

Realtor Alvin Yeo, 37, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for several years, said the estate had always been attractive for migrant workers as it is central and affordable.

At the same time, the estate's charm and rich history has attracted increasing numbers of young professionals and expatriates, many keen to maintain the area's heritage appeal.

Resident Eugene Yip, 38, said locals who live there 'love this area for its style and history'.

Tiong Bahru was designed in the 1930s in Art Deco style, privatised in the 1960s and gazetted in 2003.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority told The Straits Times: 'Private residential properties are for residential use only and are generally not allowed to be converted to dormitories.'

Source: Straits Times, 2 June 2009

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