HDB’s response to homeless story

By Leong Sze Hian

I would like to thank Mr Vernon Chan for his facebook posting on 5 March, 2014, alerting us to “HDB Speaks: Is it true that HDB penalises flat owners harshly if they fall behind in arrears?” (21 Jul, 2013) which was posted 8 months ago, in response to our financial counselling volunteers’ article “Mother with 2 children homeless in 2 weeks?” (Jul 6, 2013).

The “HDB Speaks” article states that

“In discussing “Elsie’s situation”, Mr Leong alleged that no one in HDB had advised her about her housing options. This is completely untrue. HDB has in place a proper arrears management process to ensure that families in difficulty are treated with due care and consideration. HDB also counsels such households on their alternative housing options. Only as a last resort would HDB take the step of acquiring their flat”

I think the Housing Development Board (HDB) may have misread what we wrote. We did not say that “no one in HDB had advised her about her housing options”.

What we wrote in the article was “No one has talked to her about what her housing options are, if the flat is compulsorily acquired. Can she apply for a HDB rental flat (the 30 months debarment period from the flat disposal applies in her case), be offered a 3-room rental flat to share with another family under the Interim Housing Scheme or a homeless shelter?”

What we were referring to was her housing options, should her flat be compulsorily acquired – and not “no one in HDB had advised her about her housing options” (in general before compulsory acquisition).

So what housing options did HDB give to her and her 2 children, following compulsory acquisition?

HDB wrote, “Recently, there was an online posting by Mr Leong Sze Hian, “Mother with 2 children homeless in 2 weeks?”, portraying HDB as an organisation that is seemingly unsympathetic towards those who are unable to finance their mortgage loans”

We would like to clarify that the story was written based on what “Elsie” told us. From our experience in financial counselling, there may often be “2 sides of the story”. In this case, arguably – Elsie’s and the HDB’s.

Our focus in financial counselling is to try not to focus on the why and the how the family in financial stress ended up in their current situation or predicament? What we do is try to focus on helping to address their problems at hand, and moving forward into the future.

The HDB’s response seems to be focused on relating why the family made imprudent or poor decisions, did not make or delayed financial decisions relating to their HDB flat.  And also highlighted issues such as the person’s divorce, legal practicalities, HDB rules,  upon divorce pertaining to a court order relating to the disposal of the HDB flat, her ineligibility for a HDB loan, etc

To put the crux of the matter into context – we wrote in our article –

“Based on the above estimate, she may get very little cash proceeds if she is forced to sell her flat in the open market ($470,000 – $15,000 flat transaction expenses – $100,000 loan balance – $240,000 to ex-husband’s CPF – $80,000 to her CPF = $35,000). How long will $35,000 last for her and her 2 sons, if she has to rent a flat in the open market (nobody may rent a room to a divorcee with 2 teenager children), plus the fact that she will lose her $1,000 monthly income from her 2 rooms’ rental?”

We would also like to clarify that our scope in financial counselling may be wider than the HDB’s – which naturally may be focused on her HDB housing options only.

That is why we advised her to seek assistance from AWARE, SCWO and the Legal Aid Bureau. Which she did by calling AWARE and SCWO, and went to the Legal Aid Bureau on 5 July, 2013 to seek help. Legal Aid Bureau then opened a file for her and given her an early appointment date of 9 July, 2013.

However, AWARE was unable to assist her as her matter relates to HDB and CPF issues arising from the divorce after the finalisation of her divorce court order, and SCWO gave her the earliest possible appointment  date of 18 July, 2013 to seek legal advice from their free legal clinic.

As her income is only about $1,000 from the rental of her 2 rooms, I asked her if she was getting any financial assistance and suggested that she see her Member of Parliament (MP) for assistance regarding her HDB and Central Proficiency Fund (CPF) problems on her flat.

She replied that she did not get any assistance and has also not seen her MP since her divorce was finalised in November 2012 and the problems of her flat became clearer – because the last 2 times that she sought assistance from her MP – she did not receive any help. – About 2 years ago on her problem that she could not pay her son’s polytechnic tuition fees, and about a year ago about her difficulty in paying her electricity bills.

We advised her that notwithstanding her past experience – she should go and seek assistance from her MP. We also advised her to call the ComCare hotline 1800222000 to seek financial assistance (from our experience and understanding she should qualify as her income is only $1,000 from renting the 2 rooms and there are 3 persons including her 2 sons who are dependents).

It may be unfortunate that the HDB did not respond directly to our article, but chose to put its response on “HDB Speaks”.

Had we been aware of the HDB’s response in July, 2013 – we could possibly have advised “Elsie” to contact the HDB regarding her housing options, after compulsory acquisition.

In the spirit of the HDB’s remarks –

“Such one-sided, half-complete and inaccurate accounts circulated online create an atmosphere of confusion and mistrust. They do not help any family in difficulty to work productively with HDB to resolve their financial situation”

As we are only aware now of the HDB’s response, which was about 8 months ago – we are inclined to not contact “Elsie” now again, as it may bring back painful memories of a sad episode in her and her children’s life.

In this regard, we would like to apologise to the HDB if her story as told to us by her, may differ or have omitted much of the details of how and why she ended up in her predicament, and what advice or assistance the HDB had given her prior to her coming to us for financial counselling.

In this connection, in the spirit of “(not) create an atmosphere of confusion and mistrust” – we would like to suggest that the HDB make regular periodic disclosure of the following statistics:

  • The number of HDB households in arrears for more than 3 months on their HDB concessionary loans?
  • The number of HDB flats compulsorily acquired?
  • The number of HDB in arrears that had to be sold in the open market?
  • The number of HDB bank loans in arrears?
  • The number of HDB bank loans foreclosed?
  • The number of HDB bank loans in arrears that had to be sold in the open market?
  • The breakdown of the costs of building HDB flats?