By Shakina Sani
On 12th March 2015, at around 9:15am, a concrete slab measuring 15cm by 13cm fell from the kitchen ceiling in my parents’ flat, narrowly missing our 34-month old toddler. The slab left a gaping hole in the ceiling, revealing the imbedded steel rod. As relieved as we were that she was unharmed, it was unfortunately not the end of this harrowing incident. HDB's stand on the matter was almost as mortifying.
HDB’s Customer Service (Sims Drive Branch) initially assured us that an officer would be dispatched immediately to assess the damages, but no one showed up. After contacting HDB again, we were told by another officer that there was ‘no way’ an officer would turn up on the day itself.
After some insistence, we were finally told to contact a Mr Syamsul for direct liaison. When we finally managed to get him on the line, he simply dismissed our distress and concerns, stating that ‘spalling concrete in flats older than 20 years old is normal’, was caused by carbonation and hence, no urgent matter. Additionally, he repeatedly cited HDB’s policy which states that homeowners were responsible for maintenance faults within the flat and that HDB was not responsible for such instances.
Would it still not have been an urgent matter if that slab had hit my toddler on the head, or my elderly parents? Could it not even have been fatal? How can HDB remain so nonchalant about these issues, choosing instead to blame the homeowners for this presumed ‘lack of maintenance’?
I proceeded to check on the ‘policy’ that the HDB officer so fervently cited, and found it quite alarming. On HDB’s website on Home Maintenance – Repair of Spalling Concrete, it is stated that:
‘If the spalling concrete is minor, you can repair it on your own by following the steps as shown below or you can view the video of spalling concrete repair.’
Yet, the images that follow show a man - head protected by a sturdy yellow construction helmet and armed with a heavy industrial drill, attempting to repair this supposedly ‘minor’ damage. Tell me, do we all keep industrial drills in our apartment? More importantly, should we?
The document also explains that, ‘..if the spalling concrete is left unattended over a long period, it will spread to a bigger area and weaken the building structure.’
Whilst I agree that it is the homeowner's prerogative to maintain their flats, surely issues surrounding structural integrity are not. How is a falling slab of concrete, made by materials chosen by the HDB authority, a problem that my parents, who have been paying their lease their entire lives, have to bear?
This is neither an issue of mere flaking paint nor cosmetic deterioration. It is an issue of responsibility to homeowners and integrity of the buildings we call home. It is an issue of safety in our own homes that should be guaranteed by the authority that built it. The causes of spalling concrete go beyond carbonation, and wear and tear as the HDB so convenietly states. It is also due to poor workmanship, and inferior building materials, factors which HDB cannot ignore and so easily palm off to homeowners.
A brief survey of reported cases of spalling concrete date all the way back to 1984 in this forum letter, and a report on an errant contractor in The Straits Times, and continues throughout HDB’s history til today (see: reported case in 1987, for reported cases in 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, please check for articles in The New Paper). In the reports mentioned above, residents have complained that the recomended repairs for the spalling concrete were mere stop-gap measures, and more severe treatment had to be undertaken by HDB to solve the issue.
If such instances of spalling concrete date all the way back to 1984 at the very least, shouldn't HDB look into better building management? How many people need to be grieviously hurt by falling concrete for HDB to recognise that this is a serious issue? HDB leases are 99 years long, and we should not have to worry about such serious safety issues in a flat barely a third into its lifespan.
As our population ages and the number of old folks living by themselves in old flats continue to rise, HDB should not trivialise this matter. The officer who liaised with us, unfortunately, had no sympathy that our child was almost hurt or the danger that the falling slab posed.
It is highly distressing that something so potentially deadly be so easily blamed on homeowners. HDB’s lack of concern for safety towards homeowners and people in general is terrifying to say the least. We got neither compassion nor a listening ear, only a cold, frustrating reminder that the repair costs had to be borne by my parents and that HDB was not responsible. If HDB truly believed its mission to provide ‘affordable housing of quality and value’ for the People, it clearly has a long way to go in fulfilling that responsibility.
TOC has sent a copy of this letter to HDB and will include their response when they reply.