Monday, March 8, 2010

Terrace house ‘hostels’ for medical tourists

SEVERAL terrace house owners in the quiet lanes near Mount Elizabeth Hospital are opening their doors to medical tourists and travellers seeking budget accommodation in the heart of Orchard Road.

They charge between $50 and $120 per room a night, depending on the number of guests and whether it is peak season.

A room in a hotel in that area could cost at least three or four times more. For the price they pay, tenants get a bed, bathroom access, air-conditioning and housekeeping services. Rooms with bathrooms are pricier. These ‘hostels’ are often fronted by the owners’ maids, usually Indonesians, who can communicate better with these overseas patients, many of whom are also Indonesians.

The owners, however, appear to be breaking the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) rules, which state that private properties cannot be converted to other uses such as workers’ dormitories or boarding houses. The Straits Times found at least eight terrace houses within a two-minute walk of Mount Elizabeth Hospital where foreigners can stay on a short-term basis for a fee.

Most are in Jalan Elok, between the hospital grounds and York Hotel, but there are also a few along Jalan Lada Puteh, which is behind the hospital and next to Lucky Plaza.

On one Tuesday afternoon, The Straits Times spotted a group of six Indonesians dragging their suitcases behind them and entering one of the houses along Jalan Elok. When approached, one said they were in Singapore on vacation and had heard about the lodging from a friend back home. The group booked two rooms for $120 a night.

Moments after the group entered, a woman in a blue sports car pulled up just outside the house. Madam S.L. Chong, 64, identified herself as the owner but said the group who had just walked in were her Indonesian husband’s relatives.

The housewife said she charged them a minimal fee, as she was ‘unemployed and needed to make a living’. She claimed that she had approval from the URA to do this.

However, a check with the authority showed that this was not true. Its spokesman said it would investigate the possible infringement. The URA usually issues a warning notice to offenders and, if the unauthorised use does not stop, they can be charged in court and face fines of up to $200,000 or jail of up to a year, or both.

Two doors away from Madam Chong’s house, Madam Lily Lim told a similar story – that those staying temporarily in her house were her in-laws from Indonesia.

However, when The Straits Times contacted Madam Lim as an interested customer to inquire about lodging, she offered a room in her house at $50 a day.

When asked about this, Madam Lim insisted these rates were only for her relatives and said she did not require government approval for this.

Like Madam Chong, she said she could not afford to house them for free.

Business appears brisk at these ‘hostels’. The housekeepers of two of such houses said all their six bedrooms were fully occupied, for the next eight days for one of them.

A 47-year-old Indonesian businessman who has helped friends book accommodation at these houses said that, during the Formula One race season or other peak periods, these ‘hostels’ charged almost double the usual rates to cash in on the hotter demand.

Two houses at Jalan Elok even had an additional room built in the parking space, he said. It is understood that some houses have also repartitioned their bedrooms. ‘You can tell; some of the walls sound hollow,’ said the businessman.

Unauthorised repartitioning with the purpose of operating a boarding house is also illegal, said the URA.

Some of the owners of these terrace houses do not even live there, said other Jalan Elok residents. Indonesian housekeepers, allegedly employed as maids, are left in charge of a host of additional responsibilities such as providing housekeeping services to tenants.

Such accommodation, though illegal, do cater to the need for affordable short-term stays, filling a gap between hotels and hostels, which are usually run-down.

Several guests The Straits Times approached said they were in Singapore either to seek medical help or to visit relatives in hospital. Some were private students from countries such as Vietnam and China.

Mr Jim Chen, 40, a tenant from the Philippines, ditched his initial plans of staying at a serviced apartment at the nearby Lucky Plaza because it was ‘just too crowded and too noisy’. The fitness centre manager, who is in Singapore for physiotherapy, settled for a room in a Jalan Elok house, where he found the environment more tranquil.

An Indonesian maid, who gave her name as Madam Kartini and who advertises a house on Jalan Lada Puteh with rooms for rent on a website, said: ‘Most of them are here for medical treatments. We rarely have tourists.’

She added that most patients and their relatives stayed for a couple of days but some, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, would stay much longer, sometimes for more than a month.

Apart from the convenient distance from one of the region’s largest private hospitals, the main draw of these ‘hostels’ is their affordability. ‘Medical expenses are already so costly, and everything else in Singapore is also very expensive,’ said Madam Kartini. ‘At least they can now save on lodging.’

A hotel room in this prime area goes for between $200 and $600 a night.

Some residents in the area, though, are unhappy.

A resident in her 30s, who declined to be named, is disturbed by how such businesses have ’spoilt the neighbourhood’. She complained of shady characters. ‘It is no longer the case where I can let my son play outside,’ she added.

Mr Woo Chan Joo, a 77-year-old retiree, lives across a house where rooms used to be rented out until a fire there two months ago put an end to that. He said: ‘There were many people coming and going, some of them were in wheelchairs, some bandaged… It’s more peaceful now.’

Source: Straits Times, 8 Mar 2010

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