Sunday, April 26, 2009

Queuing 36 hours for a home

Since we got married two years ago, my husband and I have resisted applying for any random Housing Board flat.

We wanted to preserve the privileges and priorities awarded to us as first-time applicants. Under HDB's computerised balloting system, a first-time applicant gets double the chances of regular applicants.

Flighty buyers who send in frivolous applications only to pull out later are pushed to the back of the queue the next time they apply.

So you can imagine that the first application for an HDB flat is a precious trump card for any couple. And we wanted to save it for the right flat and the right project.

However, when the right HDB project did come along last week, I found to my dismay that my trump card was useless. Instead of relying on a trusty computerised balloting system, I had to physically queue alongside hundreds of others for a flat at the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) project in Simei.

The queue lasted two days. The fatigue, however, lingered on for the rest of the week.

Unlike the case of normal HDB projects, the developers of DBSS projects have the flexibility to decide on the sales terms, which include how the flats are sold.

I have been eyeing the Simei DBSS project for some time and thought that unlike other DBSS projects, this one was in a neighbourhood with unrealised potential.

Although Simei is a relatively quiet neighbourhood now, the area is expected to come alive when the fourth university comes up in 2011. Parc Lumiere, as the Simei project is called, is also a more exclusive project with only 360 units.

So when developer Sim Lian Group advertised in the papers two Fridays ago that it would be launching Parc Lumiere the following day, I was worried after reading that units would be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. With only 360 units up for grabs, the competition was going to be tough.

While the showflat was scheduled to open for viewing on Saturday, April 18, sales would begin only on Tuesday, three days later.

But, as though tempting people to queue, Sim Lian added a caveat that sales might begin earlier if there was 'overwhelming demand'.

I knew then that I would have to compete with some over-eager Singaporeans. I didn't have an inkling of just how over-eager they were.

The first interested buyers began queuing up at 8am on Friday, the very same day Sim Lian's advertisement was published and four whole days before the sale date.

Busy at work, I didn't know that a queue had begun snaking outside the Parc Lumiere showflat. According to media reports, by 9pm that day there were more than 200 people in the queue.

I found out only when I got home at midnight and read the online news. By the time my husband rushed down to the showflat, we were the 318th in the queue, a woeful figure considering there were only 360 units available.

Both of us do not have much patience for queues. I would rather give up a freebie than stand in line for 15 minutes. I would forgo the most exciting roller coaster ride at the world's best theme park if it means having to queue for an hour. I think there are better things to do in life than stand in line.

Which is why I think HDB switching to a balloting system in 2007 was one of the best things that ever happened to Singapore society. Under the balloting system, a computer ballot will determine when the first batch of applicants get to book a flat of their choice.

The system is fair. First-timers get twice the chance while first-timers with kids are four times more likely to be successful compared with the rest.

No more week-long queues at the HDB Hub. No more squabbles and fights over who came first. No more exploitation of old, retired parents who stand in line for their working children. No one needs to queue and everything is done in an orderly manner.

That first night, my husband offered to queue outside the showflat alone since I had work the next day. He spent the night on a plastic chair in a humid and crowded tent.

Although Sim Lian announced soon after that it would bring forward its sale date to Saturday, there was no chance of leaving after securing a queue number. The developer's marketing agents created frequent excuses to get people to stay. We were herded from one queue to another.

First, there was the queue to indicate our interest in entering the showflat at 8am on Saturday. Then there was the queue to get into the showflat proper. After which came the queue for a blue file into which applicants had to insert their documents. This was followed by the queue to file an HDB application online. Only after all that came the queue to book our unit of choice.

If you were not there when your queue number was called, your name would be struck off the list.
So for more than 18 hours, some 400 tired and sleepy applicants were moved from queue to queue.

Sim Lian probably wanted to keep people physically in the queue because of what happened at the Tampines DBSS sale of 121 leftover flats two years ago. The developer had issued queue numbers and asked people to go home.

What they didn't count on was another group of interested buyers turning up to queue about two hours later. A fight almost broke out in the morning when those with queue numbers turned up.

This was not the first time fights almost broke out in a queue for an HDB flat. In February 2007, things got ugly outside the HDB Hub building among people who were queuing up for flats in mature estates. The queue had begun an entire week before the sale date.

With Singapore's blemished history of queuing for HDB flats, I wonder why HDB allowed Sim Lian to sell the Simei DBSS flats on a first-come, first-served basis.

DBSS flats are essentially HDB flats and their sale is still governed by HDB rules. Buyers' incomes cannot exceed $8,000 and the ethnic quota still has to be fulfilled.

If these aspects of the sale are done the HDB way, shouldn't the way the flats are sold be done the HDB way too?

The balloting system is not only more convenient, it is fair as well because it ensures that everyone gets an equal chance, not just those who can take leave from work at a moment's notice or those who have retired parents who don't mind queuing for their children.

After a 36-hour wait, my husband and I managed to get a high-floor unit of our choice.

Although we are happy and relieved, we do wish that our first experience of buying an HDB flat could have been a lot less stressful and tiring.

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009

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