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The Big Read: Can public rental and BTO flats co-exist? Social mixing at special HDB blocks faces stereotypes, misperceptions

SINGAPORE — When Ms Subashini, a relief security guard, heard that her block in West Plains@Bukit Batok had a mix of units which included public rental flats for the lower-income, she was not happy.

National Development Minister Desmond Lee said in a parliamentary reply last week that 15 more blocks will be completed by 2028, including three blocks slated for completion in 2024.

The rental units in these blocks are under the HDB’s Public Rental Scheme which provides lower-income households with subsidies to rent a one-room or two-room flat starting from S$26 and S$44 a month respectively. These households typically have an income of less than S$1,500.

The integrated blocks are part of the Government’s strategy to tackle growing inequality and stratification, a point highlighted by then National Development Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament in May 2018. Prior to this, public rental flats are housed in an entire block, with many of such blocks built in the 1970s and located in older towns.  

The Government has since doubled down on its efforts by extending the integrated blocks to BTO projects under the Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) model which are currently under construction in prime, central locations such as River Peaks I in Rochor and Alexandra Vale near Redhill MRT Station.

The PLH model is a different public housing scheme that offers housing units in central locations with additional subsidies to maintain affordability that will be clawed back upon resale, and an extended Minimum Occupation Period of 10 years. 

Prospective homeowners interested in buying a BTO unit in integrated blocks are notified beforehand when they log into the HDB portal to apply for a flat.

The information can also be found in the sales brochure of the different BTO projects that have an integrated block in their estates. 

However, the pricing of BTO flats in an integrated block is no different from that of a normal block.

TODAY looks at the experiences of those who are living in these integrated blocks and speaks to sociologists and Members of Parliament (MPs) on what more can be done to encourage social mixing among people from different socio-economic groups in these developments.

A BETTER LIVING ENVIRONMENT FOR SOME

TODAY visited the three completed integrated housing blocks this past week and observed that each has different layouts and distribution of rental one-room and two-room rental flats.

However, most of the rental units are typically on one side of the block and spread across different floors. There is no other distinguishing external feature to indicate that they are rental units.

Prior to moving into her three-room BTO home in Fernvale Glades in September last year, Madam Ng Hwee Teow, 67, was aware that she would be living in an integrated block but was unfazed by it.

Although all the rental units of Mdm Ng’s block 462A were still unoccupied when TODAY visited it on Wednesday (July 12), the housewife said that she did not have any concerns regarding the soon-to-be tenants moving in.

She felt that there is no need to “make things complicated” as everyone should treat each other in a neighbourly way by “taking care of one another”.

For Mr Zailan, 36, who declined to give his full name, moving into integrated Block 182A in Marsiling Greenview has meant creating a safer and better environment for his two children, who are aged four and seven.

Mr Zailan said that he moved out of his rental flat in Bedok after noticing how the environment there might introduce “bad habits” to his children.

“I was out on level 12 and I saw the other kids from the rental units (in Bedok) sitting on the parapet smoking, and I’m afraid my children would follow so I decided to move out,” he said.

Sharing a similar view, 15-year-old Amirul said that it has been “much better” living in the two-room rental unit with his family at Block 182A, especially with the clutter-free corridors that have made it much easier for him to get around.

However, the student felt that more could be done to integrate rental tenants into the community.

“Outings could be organised with the community and neighbours could show appreciation to one another by sharing food,” he said. 

A BTO flat owner who wanted to be known only as Madam Nor has remained positive about the rental tenants who have become her neighbours, even though she was initially unaware that she would be living in an integrated block.

“Sometimes homeowners may not be happy with the renters, saying that they are noisy, but I say that as neighbours, we have to understand each other,” said the 61-year-old housewife.

Having stayed in an interim rental flat before she got her own two-room unit in Marsiling Greenview, Mdm Nor has never experienced any issues with rental tenants.

“Although we bought and own a flat, we should not look down on people who rent a flat.”

As someone who had been a grassroots leader when she was living in Choa Chu Kang, she hopes to have more activities as a way to mix and bond with her rental unit neighbours.

Mdm Nor said with a laugh: “Now that Covid is over, we should try and have more outings like a heritage tour!” 

CONCERNS ABOUT RENTAL TENANTS

While there may be some who welcome the idea of integrated blocks, others, like 71-year-old Madam Sim, still have some reservations about mixing rental and sold units in a BTO block. 

Mdm Sim, who declined to give her full name, had been living in a maisonette until she moved into her three-room BTO flat in West Plains@Bukit Batok after her husband’s illness left him wheelchair-bound.

Though the retiree sees her rental flat neighbours every now and then, she rarely speaks to them except for the typical “hello” when they meet in the common area. 

Her concerns about sharing a block with rental tenants stem from her seeing more people smoking and the state of cleanliness in the common areas.

In addition to the rubbish that she would often find along the corridor, Mdm Sim had to put up with the unbearable waft of cigarette smoke that led her to close the windows and doors to keep the smell out. 

“Sometimes they would smoke in the morning and sometimes late at night which was why I had to call the town council for a solution,” she said.

Mdm Sim added that the cigarette smoke has since stopped being an issue, though she was not sure if it was because of the town council’s intervention. 

Another pressing concern of hers is the growing number of people she has seen going in and out of the flats on her floor, and in her block. 

“I used to be able to walk around my corridor late at night, but I’ve not been able to now due to the increase in the number of people and unfamiliar faces,” said Mdm Sim.

Although engaged couple Ms Lydia, 35, and Mr Shiva, 41, did not have the same experience as Mdm Sim, Ms Lydia said that since moving into her rental unit, she has learned to “mind her own business” to avoid conflicts with other homeowners. 

The couple, who declined to give their full names, occupy a one-bedroom rental unit in Marsiling Greenview with their son and dog. 

As compared to Ms Lydia’s previous stay in a public rental unit in Teck Whye where she had heard of two murders and a suicide, the move to Marsiling Greenview has made her feel like she is an “equal in society” because it does not feel like she is living in a rented home.

Still, the housewife has found it difficult to maintain friendships after a falling out with her neighbours from the BTO units on other floors who now consider her a “negative person”.

Ms Lydia did not elaborate on what the issue was between her and the neighbours, except that it started after she “tried to help them out”.

“For me now, I will choose to keep quiet and live my own life. I won’t interact with anybody so as to avoid unnecessary problems.” 

Ms Lydia’s fiance, on the other hand, feels that a change in mindsets can help tenants and homeowners to live harmoniously. 

As an ex-convict, Mr Shiva said that homeowners should realise that not all ex-convicts and people living in rental flats are “problematic people”.

He added that rental tenants must also change their attitude as well.

“They must change their own way of life to better cohesively live peacefully together with homeowners, and if that happens, we won’t be having any problems,” said Mr Shiva, who is self-employed. 

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC) who oversees the Marsiling Greenview integrated block, told TODAY that he had expected concerns to be raised by residents living in the block though he had only received a handful of such feedback to date.

Mr Zaqy, who is also Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence, said the issues raised were related to the upkeep of the common areas, and noise problems due to inconsiderate behaviours or a moneylender chasing someone for money.

He added that there had been incidents which led to the police being called, but stressed that these were “sporadic” compared to the ones in older rental flats. 

Despite such issues, Mr Zaqy highlighted the need for integrated blocks as tenants of rental units get to enjoy the same facilities that are not available to them if they were living in normal public rental blocks.

MINDSET SHIFTS ON RENTAL UNIT RESIDENTS NEEDED

During a panel discussion last year at the Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Perspectives forum, Mr Desmond Lee, the National Development Minister, said that when the Government was considering whether to include rental flats in new projects under the Prime Location Housing model, there were some who strongly advised against it.

“This is an area which is always fraught with challenges,” Mr Lee said.

On one hand, some believe that separating those living in rental flats from other HDB developments would lead to a gentrification of some areas in Singapore. On the other hand, there are also questions whether housing rental residents together with those who are buying prime location homes could inadvertently backfire.

“Will it be a plus? Will it motivate them? Will it demotivate them? Will it be a fraught experience? I think time will tell,” said Mr Lee. 

He added that he believed by helping people from different socio-economic groups to intermingle, it will provide the kind of social discourse that needs to be encouraged in a society facing social-economic divide. 

The issue of negative perception towards those living in HDB rental blocks and the concept of integrated blocks is not new and have been raised by MPs such as Mr Louis Ng from Nee Soon GRC and Mr Murali Pillai from Bukit Batok Single Member Constituency.

In a Facebook post in March 2018, Mr Ng wrote about the need to end the stigma for those living in rental flats as they seem to be “isolated from the community”, and his hope for more integrated blocks to be built.

Speaking to TODAY on Thursday (July 13), Mr Ng said that there is a sort of “ingrained” perception that occupants of rental units are those with lower socio-economic status and the area is very dirty, which could be because there is not much ownership in rental units.

However, he stressed that there should be a need to urgently try and change this mindset. 

The new integrated blocks that HDB is building can help encourage social mixing between the tenants and homeowners, which can also help engineer a form of guidance for children so that they will not always be in “bad company”.

He believes that the “social mixing” afforded by such blocks can be a crucial factor in uplifting someone out of poverty. 

“It is really who they know and who they mix with rather than their family structure or the school or the availability of jobs,” he said.

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said that some prospective homeowners may be reluctant to buy homes in integrated blocks due to negative public perception around public rental housing.

Such perception could have its source in class prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination, and reinforced by some actual encounters with rental housing residents and conditions of rental blocks, he said.

However, Assoc Prof Tan added the positive features of new estates where integrated blocks are located would still appeal to some BTO applicants.

He added that integrated blocks are generally a good idea as the physical proximity of rental and BTO units could facilitate social interaction. 

“The practical implication here is that the social gap between the rental units and the BTO units must not be too far apart, for example, having a one-room rental unit adjacent to an executive apartment,” he said.

Assoc Prof Vincent Chua from NUS’ Department of Sociology and Anthropology believes that physical proximity may facilitate but not guarantee social proximity as there can still be a perception of different class relations between homeowners and rental unit tenants.

He added that mixing both rental and sold units is better than dedicating floors or sections to it because segregation would draw unfavourable attention to rental units and strengthen the perception of them as “subordinate”.

His colleague, Professor Chua Beng Huat, believes that it is hard to change the perception around rental units when homeowners are concerned with the monetary value of their flats, which will be negatively affected by the presence of renters. 

WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?

In a written response to a parliamentary question in March this year, the Ministry of National Development said that early findings from an ongoing study on the lived experience of residents in integrated blocks showed that “residents are more likely to form ties with neighbours living on the same floor than with others living further away, and building sold and rental flats on the same floors has brought about interactions and ties between owners and tenants”.

The findings “reaffirm that mixed blocks are important for inclusive public housing”, the ministry said.

Assoc Prof Tan believes that if the Government is serious about reducing class segregation, then there are good reasons to introduce more mixed blocks going forward.

“If it is deemed important to encourage cross-class interaction, then every new BTO project or town renewal programme should incorporate integrated blocks in its plans,” said Assoc Prof Tan.

Agreeing, NUS sociologist Chua Beng Huat, who was formerly HDB’s director of research, said that the conservative number of integrated blocks being built suggests that it is still an experimental concept with the aim of influencing renters to adopt ownership of their units, just like homeowners.

Mr Murali, the Bukit Batok MP, told TODAY that while he acknowledged that there are negative perceptions of rental unit residents among owners of sold units, it can be overcome through active citizenry. 

He added that integrated blocks would make it possible to promote better understanding and mixing between families from different social backgrounds.

He also hopes that the mixing of units will empower the community to help one another in times of need because even though residents in rental flats will need support, they are also excellent in helping to mobilise people, organise parties and spearhead community-based initiatives.

When asked if there might be special plans to bring rental unit occupants and homeowners together, Mr Zaqy the Marsiling GRC MP told TODAY that there is no plan for a specific type of event to bring tenants and homeowners together as he does not wish to put “too big a spotlight” on rental unit occupants. 

He feels that the current efforts by Resident Committees of holding various celebrations and get-togethers are already helpful in bringing residents together while still protecting the dignity of the rental unit occupants.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh, who oversees Fernvale, shared with TODAY that he plans to organise activities and encourage interaction between homeowners and rental unit occupants when the tenants move in.

One way to do this is to have volunteers of grassroots organisations organise activities for bonding and interaction, he said.

“Whether it is a rental unit or a non-rental unit, we will try to encourage residents to interact and have good neighbourliness, as well as encourage them to look out for one another,” said Mr Gan.

While it is a good idea to mix rental and BTO units for social integration, more efforts are needed to encourage interactions among the residents, said Assoc Prof Tan. 

“Reducing physical distance does not necessarily translate into reducing social distance,” he said.

Residents also have a part to play, he added.

Assoc Prof Tan suggested that this could begin with a simple “hello” at the lift lobby and when there are more encounters, both parties should find something of common interest to start a proper conversation and to gradually build up a neighbourly relationship. 

Ms Hannah Seah, 58, is doing just that in the hope of setting an example to other BTO residents in her block.

She said: “When I went for my BTO balloting, I already knew about the rental units.”

Even though she had only just moved in to Marsiling Greenview this year, she found that some of the rental tenants in her block are “pretty decent and very kind”.

The educational therapist said there are times when she would smile at her rental unit neighbours, and wait for one another in the lift.

“Although I might still hear noises on some days and see some litter from time to time, I tend to keep an open mind about my neighbours because I like the environment here.”

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