The facade of a Public Housing Flat at Kampong Kayu Road, Singapore. Over 82% of the island nation's population lives in publicly developed and managed housing. Photo: Getty Images
The facade of a Public Housing Flat at Kampong Kayu Road, Singapore. Over 82% of the island nation's population lives in publicly developed and managed housing. Photo: Getty Images

Six people live in the one-bedroom flat that Rene Marlina calls home. Apart from the 37-year-old and her parents, her two young sons – eight and nine years old – and a 22-year-old nephew share the dwelling. 

“My mum is sleeping near the kitchen to accommodate the space for me and my kids,” she told Asia Times. “I don’t have any other place to go.”

Singapore’s public housing system is widely praised around the world as a model for affordable access. Low-cost housing was prioritized in Singapore’s early years of independence, with home ownership seen as key to building a stable and prosperous society.

The People’s Action Party, which has ruled the country since independence, ramped up construction and moved Singaporeans from squatter communities into orderly planned estates. The move from ground-level abodes to high-rise towers also freed up land for growth-promoting development and urbanization in the small island state.

Before the high-rise: Singapore at the turn of the 20th century. Photo: AFP Forum

While public housing in some countries is associated with stereotypes of neglect and poverty, housing estates built by Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) are generally clean and well-kept. Tower blocks are often painted in bright colors, with communal spaces dedicated to playgrounds and cozy corners for senior citizens.

Over 80% of the country’s resident 5.7 million population live in such estates, with about 90% of them owning their flats. But in a context where property has become an increasingly costly commodity in the densely-populated island nation, many Singaporeans are falling through the affordable housing cracks.

State restrictions are placed on who is eligible to purchase a new Build-To-Order (BTO) flat. Priority is given to heterosexual Singaporean couples or families; single Singaporeans are unable to ballot for BTO flats until they are 35-years-old.

The rationale behind such differential treatment rests with the government’s “pro-family” goals. The city-state is dealing with a fast aging population and desperate to increase its stubbornly low birth-rate. In 2016, the country’s fertility rate was 1.2, well below the 2.1 replacement rate. 

State preference: A three-generation Singaporean family in a home portrait. Photo: Getty Images

“The policies on public housing are designed to give a special advantage to couples who have a family or are looking to start a family, by making it more affordable to get their first home,” said Tan Poh Lin, assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Other rules put in place to prevent property speculation are also a factor in denying fair access to public housing for many demographic groups, including single parents like Marlina.

Marlina’s problems with housing first began in 2012 when she moved out of her matrimonial home ahead of a divorce that was finalized a year later. With neither wealthy enough to buy the other out, she and her ex-husband had no choice but to sell the flat they jointly owned.

According to regulations, anyone who sells their HDB flat is barred from public rental housing for 30 months after the sale. It costs significantly more to rent or purchase a flat on the open market, and so Marlina had no choice but to stay put in her parents’ overcrowded home.

Overcrowded: A Singapore public housing estate. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

But her troubles didn’t end after the 30-month wait. Because she had a job and money stashed in a state-run pension fund, she was told she would only be eligible to rent from the government if she bought a new flat. Only then would she be allowed a subsidized rental flat until her new unit was ready.

It is an option that Marlina and others are reluctant to exercise. Marlina currently works part-time as a basic care assistant at a local hospital, and is only paid for the hours of work she puts in each week. With little job security, committing to a fresh home loan is high risk, particularly with skyrocketing property values. Singapore is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world. 

“They said I got a substantial amount from the sale of my flat, but they didn’t know about the debts and financial issues I had to sort out after my divorce,” Marlina told Asia Times. “What happens if in time to come I’m not working… how am I going to make the monthly payments?”

Limited supply: A construction site of new public housing apartments in Singapore. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Marlina is not alone. While there are state schemes to help divorced or widowed parents, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) reported in February this year that 95% of the 55 single mothers they interviewed had encountered access to housing problems.

“The focus on home ownership may inadvertently neglect families’ most immediate needs,” said Jolene Tan, AWARE’s head of advocacy. “Following divorce, immediate access to rental housing – rather than flat purchase – is key to ensuring housing stability.”

The government’s “pro-family” focus also causes difficulties. Although unmarried single parents have in recent years been allowed access to more benefits, Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-jin still characterizes “parenthood within marriage” as the “prevalent social norm.”

Not the norm: Single parent families face barriers to access to public housing. Photo: Getty Images

Under the HDB’s policies, unmarried single parents are not able to legally form a “family nucleus” with their children and are thus barred from purchasing new flats until they are 35-years-old. Unwed single parents younger than 35 must either rent or buy off the open market.

“Being truly ‘pro-family’ means meeting the needs of all existing families, so they all have the chance to build stable family lives,” said AWARE’s Tan. “When the state uses housing access as part of a system of carrots or sticks to promote particular family structures, this harms the growing number of single-parent families and their children, with serious consequences for intergenerational poverty and social mobility.”

The same barriers apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Singaporeans. Singapore does not recognize same-sex marriage, and sex between men is still technically criminalized, although the law is not actively enforced.

Need not apply: Singapore does not recognize same-sex marriage, making it difficult for gay families to access public housing. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“For LGBT individuals, especially transgender young persons who may have been rejected or disowned by their families because of their inability to accept their child’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, current HDB policies also make it difficult for them to access public housing,” said Leow Yangfa, executive director of LGBT-friendly counseling and personal development organization Oogachaga.

“Statistics show an increasing trend towards single-person households, later marriages, fewer children, marriages where there are no children, families with children led by same-sex couples,” he said. “All this should force the HDB to update its policies to keep up with social realities.”

Meanwhile, Marlina recently reluctantly decided to ballot for a new flat. She believes it’s her only option to get a decent home and provide a stable upbringing for her two sons.

“We don’t want to be single parents, we don’t want to get a divorce but things just don’t work out. It’s really frustrating. And every day the children are like, ‘Mummy, when are we going to get our house?’” she said. “It’s sad because we cannot give them the space they want, a place they can call home.”

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