Homeless in Singapore due to technicality

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Zia is a 42-year old divorcee with five children. Four of the younger ones are in school whilst her eldest son is due to complete his National Service this year. As a Patient Service Assistant at a health care centre, she earns a gross income of $1500 a month. After deductions, she takes home approximately $1100.

Over the last twenty years that Zia and her ex-husband were together, they bought and sold four flats. The first two bought directly from the HDB were a four-room and then a five-room. The third and fourth were four-room flats from the open market. The last one was sold because of their separation. She tells The Online Citizen (TOC) that she did not receive any proceeds from the sale of her flats from her husband.

Following the divorce, she and her five children lived with her mother for more than three years, until her mother decided to sell the three-room flat at the end of 2008.

Zia then applied for HDB's Public Rental Scheme as the eligibility conditions seemed to apply to her. She is a Singapore Citizen. She earns less than $1500 per month. Her children are legally under her custody. Her last flat was sold more than 30 months ago. And she does not currently “own nor have an interest in any property”, as stipulated by the HDB’s rules.

However, her application was flatly rejected -  because she failed to meet one condition. According to the list of criteria, applicants of the scheme face debarment if they had previously owned and sold two or more direct-purchased flats from the HDB. She is now permanently disqualified.

HDB Says Not Their Problem

The options offered to her by the HDB were to either rent from the open market or to take out a bank loan to buy a flat, both of which are obvious impossibilities. Zia made an appeal to the HDB to exercise some flexibility with regards to the regulation, reasoning that as a single mother with five children and a net salary of $1100, she could never afford to rent from the open market nor borrow from the bank. The response from the HDB officer in charge of her case was, “Your predicament is not my problem”.

Angered but undaunted, Zia made a second appeal, this time to a manager. However, she was turned down again. This was in early 2009 when the HDB's interim rental housing measure was first announced. So the manager offered Zia a three-room flat at a monthly rent of $300 with the tenancy agreement to be reviewed bi-annually. Along with the flat, Bernard also offered Zia, a secondary school dropout, a piece of advice: seek a better paying job since, he said, she “sounds educated” - referring to her good command of English.

A year and two reviews later, Zia was recently informed that her rent will be raised to $420 in accordance with interim housing policies.

Fed up, Zia enlisted the help of The Online Citizen a month ago, which wrote to the HDB with a list of questions, among which were:

(a) Does the HDB have a long-term solution for single, low--income families like  which cannot rent from the HDB, and which also cannot afford to rent from the open market?

(b) What is the rationale for the increase in rental for the interim housing when the lease is extended?

(c) What is the action that HDB would take if the person is unable to find affordable housing once the lease on the interim housing expires?

TOC has yet to receive any replies from the HDB..

Zia never expected the consequences of her divorce to last this long. “Who am I going to blame? I didn’t ask to be divorced. I am independent, I work very hard. I just need extra help. They didn’t help just because of their policies. The government only will help me when I become a destitute.”

Zia is not the only 'victim' of the HDB's inflexible application of rules and regulations.

Idah's Story

Idah is another single mother with two children. Her daughter is pursuing her Masters degree, and her youngest son, in Primary 5.

Since her divorce seven years ago, Idah has been renting a two-room flat from the HDB. Up until last month, her clerical job at the People's Association earns her a  gross salary of $2000. But Idah, who started working at a young age, has sufficient  CPF  to buy over her current rental  flat. Her request to do so was declined as these flats are specifically for rental, the HDB told her. Her only alternative was to purchase a three-room flat from the HDB as anything from the open market was beyond her means. This, however, would require her to take out a small HDB Concessionary Loan. But she was turned down when she applied for it. Based on Condition (c) of the 'Who Can Apply' list of rules, Idah is ineligible as she and her ex-husband had been granted two similar loans before.

Things are coming full circle for Idah. Until recently, her rent was $250 a month. With her income, she could hardly keep up with rent payments, and ended up accumulating $1,700 in arrears. She was recently served a “Notice to Quit” and told to clear out of the flat by the end of this month. To top it off, the renewal of her latest tenancy agreement was accompanied with a $100 rental increase to $350, as her recent $65 pay rise to $2065 means that she now falls under another bracket of the rental scheme.

Her several written appeals to the HDB to reconsider her loan application were futile. Idah then decided to seek help from her Citizens’ Consultative Committee Chairman, Mr Chia Ngiang Hong. After hearing her out, Mr Chia's first words were, “You're rich” - in reference to her $2000 salary, Idah tells TOC He went on further to say that in  Chinese culture, the older child would sacrifice for the younger siblings. So Idah's daughter should have worked to help the family out instead of pursuing a Masters' degree.

Since then, Idah has had to terminate her fixed phone line to cut back on expenditures. She also works as a helper at a food stall during the weekends to earn some extra cash. When I last spoke with her, she was recovering from an asthma attack brought on by stress due to her housing problems.

Zia, on the other hand, is at her wits' end. “[For now] we may have a roof but it’s still a question mark because”, she says, “I don't know when they can take it away from me”. She feels the government is penalising her for what happened in her marriage.

By Yong Pagit

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