Public housing policies create serious difficulties for single parents, this is according to a report released by the local non-government organisation, AWARE on 15 February. AWARE in its report, suggests that the policies should be amended to be more inclusive.
The released study involved in-depth interviews with 55 single mothers and found 95 percent of interviewees who sought public housing faced problems, from unrealistic income ceilings and long debarment periods to a lack of transparency and clarity in policies.
The majority of the women in the study, conducted between May 2015 and February last year, were mothers who were unmarried, divorced, widowed or with spouses in prison, six of them were unwed mothers.
Their families experience stress, uncertainty and financial pressure, and frustration with poorly explained and uncertain processes – such as the need for multiple applications or appeals to their Members of Parliament.
Many faced financial disadvantages, particularly divorced women who contributed years of unpaid care giving during their marriages.
AWARE said the cases in the survey illustrate the difficulties these women faced in accessing public housing, ‘a situation often compounded by their problems with employment, finances and childcare’.
In response, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said that it recognises that its policies may not address every circumstance, but said that it does, on a case-by-case basis, exercise flexibility to help single parents, including single unwed parents.
AWARE’s key recommendations in the report include:
- Increase the $1,500 income cap for rental housing – A barrier and disincentive that AWARE states, is keeping single parents from increasing their earnings to better support their families. (For reference, average monthly income for the 1st to 10th percentile of resident-employed households was $1,927 in 2015; and income ceiling caps for ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance and the Community Health Assistance Scheme are $1,900 monthly household income and $1,800 per capita respectively.)
- Lift debarment periods for rental housing and HDB purchases – For single parents who have care and control of children, including if care and control is split. The debarment rules are intended to prevent property speculation and should not apply to those who need homes due to changed life circumstances.
- Treat an unmarried mother and her children as a ‘family nucleus’ – For the purpose of HDB schemes.
- Improve service delivery – including creating a unit to coordinate services to families transitioning to single-parent households.
- Empowering HDB to enforce court orders – For sales of matrimonial flats.
MND said it will take Aware's findings into consideration and that schemes are available to single-parent households, including the priority given to ‘divorced or widowed parents with children below age 16 in BTO (build-to-order) exercises through the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (Assist)’.
Uma (pseudonyms), one of the many respondents whom AWARE interviewed, is a divorced mother of four, s shares her experience with the HDB rental and purchase application processes. Uma said, “As long as you don’t meet the criteria or you fall short of one category, you are rejected. They do not offer a second chance or (tell you) how you can go about doing it… To them, no means no, so then you have to go appeal, and you have to repeat the whole process again.”
“This is quite typical of the respondents’ experiences. Many had to appeal to their MPs or HDB’s discretion – though 38 percent could not access housing even with help from MPs,” said Ms Jolene Tan.
“Rather than clogging up the system with multiple appeals, policy-makers should take into account single parents’ specific needs to design more inclusive rules,” she said.
AWARE is very concerned about the impoverishment of single-parent (overwhelmingly single-mother) families.
In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, Minister for National Development, and Minister for Social and Family Development, AWARE wrote, “We are glad that the Government recognises their housing difficulties. The Fresh Start Housing Scheme is a step in the right direction, but we would like to make the following further recommendations to ensure that families can truly escape the poverty trap and achieve upward social mobility.”
The AWARE’s recommendations concerning the Fresh Start Housing Scheme covers four aspects:
- Address post-divorce impoverishment through rental access, not flat purchase.
Contrary to the common assumption that selling an HDB flat yields a sizeable profit, a few years after divorce, many single mothers are poorer, some even destitute. They become poor through the process of losing their matrimonial home and being forced to rent in the open market for 30 months while they are barred from HDB rentals.
- Care gaps and poor prospects mean single mothers may not find continuous employment.
To be eligible for Fresh Start, an individual has to be continuously employed. AWARE pointed that it is difficult for single mothers to comply with this criterion due to constraints, including the lack of affordable alternatives for caregiving, the lack of job opportunities due to employers’ prejudice against single parents, the risks faced by children in Interim Rental Housing, and the potential loss of subsidies for their children.
- Children growing up in unstable housing are at risk and may not be attending school regularly for valid reasons.
Many single mothers reported the negative impact of unstable housing on their children’s physical, mental and emotional health.
- Attention should be shifted to the needs of all children and their single parents, rather than the current focus on criteria of eligibility.
Most single mothers interviewed reported that their interactions with HDB were negative. The most frequent feedback AWARE received was that HDB officers ‘go by the book’, and did not show any understanding of the difficulties experienced by single-parent families. The risks to which the children of single parents are exposed as a result of impoverishment and unstable housing make their future precarious.