The Big Read in short: Can public rental and BTO residents co-exist harmoniously in same HDB block?
SINGAPORE — When Ms Subashini, a relief security guard, heard that her block in West Plains@Bukit Batok has a mix of units which included rental flats for the lower income, she was not happy.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the experiences of residents in three special public housing blocks which houses both Build-to-Order and Housing and Development Board rental units in a bid to encourage social mixing among different socio-economic groups. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- To promote more inclusive neighbourhoods, the Housing Development Board (HDB) has introduced integrated blocks with both public rental and sold units in its Build-to-Order (BTO) projects
- Three of 20 such blocks have been completed and residents tell TODAY that they have had both positive and negative experiences with those who bought or rented flats
- One Member of Parliament said that none of the residents has had major disputes with their neighbours though there have been sporadic incidents that led to the police being called in
- Experts said that for integrated blocks to work, it must start with a mindset shift on how public rental unit tenants are perceived, and residents have a part to play
- More social mixing activities can also be held, though there should not be undue spotlight on which residents are rental unit occupants
SINGAPORE — When Ms Subashini, a relief security guard, heard that her block in West Plains@Bukit Batok has a mix of units which included public rental flats for the lower-income, she was not happy.
The 41-year-old owns a three room Build-to-Order (BTO) flat and having lived in a public rental unit before, she believes that there are "a lot of differences" between these rental tenants and homeowners, such as the former not taking care of the common areas and not respecting the neighbours and their privacy.
"Sometimes they like to do things at a very late timing, and they like to take up the space outside the corridor, and they smoke in the corridor. You can also hear a lot of quarrels and noise,” she said.
Before she moved in to her new home in 2021, Ms Subashini said that she was not aware that she would be sharing her housing block with rental units.
However, prospective homeowners interested in purchasing a BTO unit in these prime locations are notified beforehand of the integrated blocks that consists of public rental flats when they apply for a unit through the Housing and Development Board portal.
While Ms Subashini, who declined to give her full name, is not a fan of integrated blocks, she did share that she has had some positive experiences with families from rental units in her block since moving into Block 468B, Bukit Batok Street 41 in West Plains@Bukit Batok in 2021.
"It's mostly because of my two children who are 10 and 12 years old. We would meet the other rental unit families in the playground where our children would play together, and we would end up having a conversation about different shared interests," she said.
WHY IT MATTERS
There has long been stigma associated with public rental flats and studies have shown that HDB home buyers want to live far away from Housing and Development Board (HDB) rental blocks, which are seen as undesirable and could possibly affect nearby property values.
In an effort to promote more inclusive neighbourhoods, HDB has since 2014 introduced integrated blocks with public rental and sold units in its BTO projects.
To date, HDB has launched a total of 20 integrated blocks across 13 BTO projects, including three blocks that have since been completed in Marsiling Greenview, West Plains@Bukit Batok, and Fernvale Glades.
National Development Minister Desmond Lee said in a parliamentary reply last week that 15 more blocks will be completed by 2028, including three blocks slated for completion in 2024.
The rental units in these blocks are under the HDB's Public Rental Scheme which provides lower-income households with subsidies to rent a one-room or two-room flat starting from S$26 and S$44 a month respectively. These households typically have an income of less than S$1,500.
The integrated blocks are part of the Government's strategy to tackle growing inequality and stratification, a point highlighted by then National Development Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament in May 2018.
The Government has since doubled down on its efforts by extending the integrated blocks to BTO projects under the Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) model which are currently under construction in prime, central locations such as River Peaks I in Rochor and Alexandra Vale near Redhill MRT Station.
However, the pricing of BTO flats in an integrated block is no different from that of a normal block.
THE BIG PICTURE
For Mr Zailan, 36, who declined to give his full name, moving into a rental unit at the integrated block at Block 182A in Marsiling Greenview has meant creating a safer and better environment for his two children, who are four and seven.
Mr Zailan said that he moved out of his previous rental flat in Bedok after noticing how the environment there might introduce "bad habits" to his children.
"I was out on level 12 and I saw the other kids from the rental units (in Bedok) sitting on the parapet smoking, and I'm afraid my children would follow so I decided to move out," he said.
While there may be some who welcome the idea of integrated blocks, there are others like Madam Sim, 71, who also declined to give her full name, who still has some reservations about mixing rental and BTO units together.
Madam Sim moved into her three room BTO flat in West Plains@Bukit Batok after her husband's illness had kept him wheelchair-bound.
Her concerns about sharing a block with rental tenants stems from the increase in cigarette smoking and the general cleanliness of the common areas, as well as a growing number of people she has seen going in and out of the flats on her floor and in her block.
"I used to be able to walk around my corridor late at night, but I've not been able to now due to the increase in the number of people and unfamiliar faces," said Mdm Sim.
However, some other BTO flat owners in integrated blocks say they have no issues living alongside those in rental units
"Sometimes homeowners may not be happy with the renters, saying that they are noisy, but I say that as neighbours, we have to understand each other," said a BTO flat owner and housewife at Marsiling Greenview who wanted to be known only as Madam Nor, 61
Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC) who oversees the Marsiling Greenview integrated block, told TODAY that he had expected concerns to be raised by residents living in the block though he had only received a handful of such feedback to date.
Mr Zaqy, who is also Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence, said the issues raised were related to the upkeep of the common areas, and noise problems due to inconsiderate behaviours or a moneylender chasing someone for money.
He added that there had been incidents which led to the police being called, but stressed that these were "sporadic" compared to the ones in older rental flats.
Despite such issues, Mr Zaqy highlighted the need for integrated blocks as tenants of rental units get to enjoy the same facilities that are not available to them if they were living in normal public rental blocks.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The issue of negative perception towards those living in HDB rental blocks and the concept of integrated blocks is not new and have been raised by MPs such as Mr Louis Ng from Nee Soon GRC and Mr Murali Pillai from Bukit Batok Single Member Constituency.
Speaking to TODAY, Mr Ng believes that the "social mixing" afforded by the integrated HDB blocks can be a crucial factor in uplifting someone out of poverty.
"It is really who they know and who they mix with rather than their family structure or the school or the availability of jobs," he said, adding that there is a need for a mindset change about those who live in HDB rental flats.
Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University Singapore's (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said that negative public perception around rental housing could have its source in class prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination,
Such perceptions can also be reinforced by some actual encounters with rental housing residents and conditions of rental blocks, he said.
Integrated blocks are generally a good idea as the physical proximity of public rental and BTO units could facilitate social interaction, he added.
"The practical implication here is that the social gap between the rental units and the BTO units must not be too far apart, for example, having a one-room rental unit adjacent to an executive apartment."
Assoc Prof Vincent Chua from NUS' Department of Sociology and Anthropology believes that physical proximity with the integrated blocks may facilitate but not guarantee social proximity as there can still be a perception of different class relations between homeowners and rental unit tenants.
His colleague, Professor Chua Beng Huat, also believes that it is hard to change the perception around rental units when homeowners are concerned with the monetary value of their flats, which can be negatively affected by the presence of renters.
While it is a good idea to mix rental and BTO units for social integration, more efforts are needed to encourage interactions among the residents, said Assoc Prof Tan.
"Reducing physical distance does not necessarily translate into reducing social distance," he said.
Residents also have a part to play, he added.
Ms Hannah Seah, 58, is doing just that in the hope of setting an example to other BTO residents in her block.
Even though she had only just moved in to Marsiling Greenview this year, Ms Seah found that some of the rental tenants in her block are “pretty decent and very kind”.
The educational therapist said there are times when she would smile at her rental unit neighbours, and wait for one another in the lift.
"Although I might still hear noises on some days and see some litter from time to time, I tend to keep an open mind about my neighbours because I like the environment here."