Monday, February 9, 2009

No-frills housing, please

NO PLAYGROUNDS or covered walkways in new HDB estates. Nor any barbecue pits. New flats should have very basic floor tiles, meanwhile.
It is hardly the usual call from Members of Parliament, who tend to push for upgrading in their constituencies. But two among their ranks are making the call for "no-frills" housing.

According to Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Lee Bee Wah, this should be an option for home buyers and one way to provide more affordable housing.

Dr Lim's residents in Sembawang, for example, have told him HDB flat prices are high and younger residents who want to move out of their parents' homes after marriage find it hard to do so.

"Many of them have just started work and may not have so much cash," he told Today. "You're giving them a chance to build something simple, and over the years when their salaries increase, they may want to improve their homes."

When he first raised this in Parliament on Friday, Dr Lim gave the example of flat prices in the 1970s: $15,000 and $20,000 for a three-room and four-room flat respectively. A graduate with a starting salary of $1,000 could pay off his apartment with 15 to 25 months of his pay, he said.

But today, though their starting salaries are three to five times higher, the prices of new flats have shot up "10 to 30 times", he added.

"A high cost of housing has many repercussions as it results in higher costs of living, reduction of resources for other pursuits such as education and investment," he said.

His solution, he envisions, would lower construction costs and allow flats to be sold for "well below $100,000".

But covered link-ways, playgrounds and other upgrading works can be done later when the estate is more mature, he added.

Echoing his views, Ms Lee (Ang Mo Kio) said HDB "should avoid building flats with too many value-added features", which should be left to private developers.

When contacted, other MPs had mixed feelings, however, about whether there is a place for no-frills flats in Singapore's public housing spectrum.

Mr Teo Ser Luck (Pasir Ris-Punggol) said the biggest gripe, instead, among couples he has spoken to is the long waiting time for a new flat.

The no-frills idea may also not appeal to younger buyers, who aspire more and are more demanding. "They're more well informed and have specific demands for the quality of life they want," said Mr Teo.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah) was concerned that owners who do not like having the bare minimum might "start hacking and doing it up all over again".

"I don't think people are saying ‘give me no-frills', but they're asking for cheaper alternatives," he said, and suggested that three-room flats - with quality - would be good for younger couples.

"I think we should create more supply in that segment," he said. "They can always look at upgrading options later."

In his Parliamentary reply on Friday, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said HDB will launch about 3,000 flats for sale in the first half of this year, of which 1,400 will be studio apartments, two- and three-room flats. There will be 4,000 of such flats launched over the next two years.

"We'll increase the supply of smaller and lower-priced flats further if necessary to meet the demand from the lower income group," he said.

Dr Lim had other suggestions as well: Price homes based on cost rather than matching them to market conditions, and shorten the lease from the current 99 years.

Some home hunters welcomed his call for no-frills flats.

Technician Chen Yi, 29, got married in November and is staying in a Woodlands executive flat with his wife, parents and two siblings.

Mr Chen has been looking for a matrimonial home but has been unsuccessful because prices of resale flats have been out of reach, and he does not want to wait several years for a new flat.

"I don't mind if my home has just one bedroom and a hall," he said. "Even if it's cramped like those apartments in Hong Kong, I don't care. I just want a place where I can have privacy."

Source: Today - 9 Feb 2009

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