Amend housing policies for single parents: Women's group Aware

SINGAPORE - Housing policies in Singapore ought to be amended so they are more inclusive of single parents, said Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

The women's rights group released a study on Wednesday detailing the top challenges 55 single mothers faced with accessing public housing.

Out of the 55 women - majority of whom are divorced with six as unwed mothers - 21 said they could not access public housing despite help from a Member of Parliament. In one case, an MP wrote 25 letters to HDB on behalf of a single mother.

Another 18 mothers said their salary exceeded the income cap for rental housing.

The current income cap is $1,500 per month - a sum Aware said should be increased given that average monthly income for the first 10th percentile of resident households was $1,927 in 2015.

Currently, unwed mothers and their children are not recognised as a family nucleus for HDB schemes. Unwed mothers cannot get their own flats until they turn 35 where they can then buy a flat under the Singles Scheme.

For divorced parents, those who have owned a HDB flat cannot rent from the HDB for 30 months after the sale of the flat. Divorcees also face a three-year debarment during which only one party can own a subsidized flat.

Aware made four other recommendations in the report: To lift debarment periods for rental housing and HDB flat purchases for single parents, treat an unmarried mother and her children as a family nucleus, create a unit that will serve single-parent households, and allow HDB to enforce court orders for sale of matrimonial flats.

Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware, said the policies need to be amended since single-parent households are growing in number.

There were 7,522 divorces and annulments in 2015, a 2.9 per cent increase from 2014, and the third-highest annual figure on record.

"Everyone needs decent and stable housing, regardless of marital status or family structure. Access to housing has a strong impact on family life and inter-generational social mobility," said Ms Tan.

In response to the Aware report, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said: "As a general principle, our housing policies aim to address the needs of Singapore Citizen households, without undermining self-reliance and family support. Divorced/widowed parents with care and control of their children from the marriage are recognised in housing policy as a family nucleus, no different from a family nucleus with married parents.

"We recognise the difficult circumstances facing single-parent households, especially in the transition after a divorce or demise of a spouse. Hence, we give priority to divorced/widowed parents with children below age 16 in BTO exercises, to buy 2- or 3-room flats in non-mature estates, through the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (Assist). This means that they are prioritised over other second-timer families. While waiting for their BTO flats, they may also rent a flat under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme or be assisted with Interim Rental Housing, like other families. In addition, HDB allows those in need who have no other housing options to enter public rental housing.

"However, we recognise that our policies may not address every circumstance. Therefore, on a case-by-case basis, we do exercise flexibility to help single parents, including single unwed parents, with their housing needs. We thank AWARE for their intensive research and will take the findings into consideration as we review our policies."

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Development, added: "The issues that single unwed mothers face are often multi-faceted. As children of single parents, including those of divorced, widowed and unwed parents, are a vulnerable group, the Government has made policy changes in recent years to provide them more support. For unwed single parents, the Government has extended the full 16-week maternity leave to unwed mothers. Their children are also eligible for Child Development Account (CDA) benefits (including the CDA First Step of $3,000)."