By Ravi Philemon
The Housing and Development (Amendment) Bill was passed on 13 April 2015. The Amendment to this Bill gives HDB officers the power of entry into HDB flats, greater powers to carry out investigations and urgent repairs. It also increases fines for unauthorised renovation and imposes financial penalties, as well as specify varying amount of penalty for lease infringements.
To give context to this Amendment Bill, the Minister for National Development, in August 2013 and in responding to Parliamentary Questions addressing concerns similar to the ones the new 'Housing & Development (Amendment) Bill proposes to fix said:
"99% of upper-floor owners cooperate with HDB and allow the repairs to be carried out to rectify the ceiling leakage. Where necessary, HDB will engage them to carry out the repairs without delay. The grassroots leaders may also step in to persuade them to cooperate. Failing which, as a last resort, HDB will initiate legal action against the upper-floor flat owners who continue to be uncooperative. Over the last 5 years, HDB has initiated legal action on an average of 100 upper-floor flat owners, ranging from 68 to 146 flats each year. This is approximately 1% of the total ceiling leak repairs cases under the GRA scheme."
About a year later, the Minister was apparently singing a different tune. Writing in his blog, he said:
"Each year, about 30% (2,800 ceiling leak cases) take more than three months to resolve due to uncooperative neighbours. In some rare cases, the resolution of the ceiling leak problem could take more than a year. This is just not satisfactory."
So, which is which? is it a small problem where on average about 100 upper-floor-flat owners refuse to cooperate to get the problem appropriately rectified requiring legal action, or is it a bigger problem with 2800 uncooperative residents?
Considering the fact that there are more than a million HDB flats, the problem of uncooperative flat-owners, regardless of if it is 100 or 2800, seems significantly small. Why does HDB need such broad powers if the problems this Bill hopes to address only applies to a significantly small number of people?
We should also try and understand why a small number of people may be uncooperative with HDB on the problem of ceiling leaks from their flats to the lower-floors. With the Government's Asset Enhancement Policy being in place for over two decades as a key-pillar for retirement security, HDB flat owners take great pride and spend a substantial amount of money in renovating their HDB flats, with the hope that such renovations will fetch them a premium price when it becomes time for them to put the flats on the resale market.
This means that such HDB flats owners will think twice when it comes to taking responsibility for leaking ceilings in the lower-floors, especially since the Goodwill Repair Assistance scheme is one-off, and there is a maximum cap of $300 per repair location. Letters to the media show that such ceiling leaks sometimes need multiple rectification efforts to be fixed.
HDB Flat owners who wish to access Goodwill Repairs Assistance are also required to be referred by the Grassroots Advisers of their estates. What about in opposition-held constituencies, where the Grassroots Adviser is not the Member of Parliament? As the Housing & Development (Amendment) Bill has been passed, there is an urgent need to review the Goodwill Repair Assistance Scheme.
Will the Minister be reviewing this assistance scheme?
The amendments to the Act will allow HDB to enter a flat without a court warrant, to carry out urgent repairs, if the owners ignore a 24-hour notice period and do not permit HDB to enter the flat. The flat-owners will also not be compensated any loss (including reinstatement costs) incurred by the owners, or any damage caused to the premises, resulting from any removal or demolition of fixtures or fittings.
This begs the question if the 24-hour notice is too short a notice period, especially since there is a potential that flat-owners may incur huge rectification costs resulting from such forced-entries. What if flat-owners are overseas for an extended period for leisure or business? What if flat-owners are in hospital? NCMP Lina Chiam also raised the issue of the very short 24-hour notice period in her Speech in Parliament on the topic.
With the proposed amendments to the Bill, HDB gets police-like powers to enter HDB-flats which it suspects are flouting its rules. HDB need not compensate the flat-owners for any mistakes as a result of this intrusion as long as it proves that it had acted in good faith and in accordance to the rules.
Considering the costs which may be prohibitive for flat-owners or occupiers who may have to rectify the forced-entries of HDB, and also the huge hurdles to take HDB to Court for any wrongdoing (perceived or real), I am of the view that there are insufficient safeguards for flat-owners.
The least the amendment to the Bill could have proposed is to get the Magistrate to authorise HDB to enter the premises forcibly in all circumstances, and prevent HDB from doing so without the Magistrate's Order.
In cases where HDB Officers forcibly enter a flat where the owners have not been present in the flat for a considerable period of time, there are chances that the neighbours may be alarmed, mistaking such forced entries as housebreaking. To give neighbours of flats that are being forcibly entered better peace of mind, any forced-entry should also be supervised by the police.
The Amendment Bill stipulates stricter penalties for flat-owners who use non-HDB Registered Renovation Contractors. The HDB Registered Renovation Contractors (RRC) scheme was started in the year 2003 and it is a (demerit) points-based system which allows RRC to self-regulate and maintain good performance. Members of the public though, have used different platforms to express their dissatisfaction not just with the contractors not on HDB's list but also with RRC.
The penalty for errant RRC range from $500 to $5000 depending on the nature and severity of the infringement. RRC involved in very serious cases may face indefinite debarment under this Scheme as well. But there appears to be nothing in the Scheme to prevent errant RRC to use a proxy to register another new renovation company to ply their trade in an unethical manner again.
With the Amendment Bill that prescribes stricter penalties for HDB flat-owners, there is a pressing need to review the RRC scheme with stiffer penalties for errant RRC. HDB should plug as many loopholes as possible which allows errant RRC to come back to business under a different name.
To address problems such as disputes arising from damages sought for forced entries of flats, I propose that an Office of a Housing Ombudsman be set up. The role of the Housing Ombudsman is one of a neutral mediator who will help resolve disputes in a manner that would seem to be in the best interest of the general public. Other countries like the UK and Australia, as well as some States in the USA have such a Housing Ombudsman Office which is created by legislation with special powers to adjudicate in such housing matters.
The Ministry for National Development should consider setting up such a neutral Office now that the Housing Amendment Bill has been passed.