Forget HDB. Time for civil society to step up to help single mums with housing

When the Government won't change its stance on single mums and subsidised housing, it's time for the rest of us to take action. Consider shared housing for single mums. Start-ups, create an app to match single mums with those willing to rent to them.

I feel both sad and angry for unwed mums with kids who have long been banned from qualifying for public housing.

There had been a glimmer of hope for them, after The Straits Times ran an article on May 11 about a mother who adopted her own biological child to form a family unit.

Under Singapore's pro-family policies, you need to form a family nucleus to get to buy or rent a subsidised flat from the HDB. A family nucleus can be a married couple, with or without children; or two unmarried siblings whose parents have died; or a single parent with a child.

Some mothers figured out they can form a family nucleus if they adopted their own child. But actually, a closer look at the HDB's own rules on its website shows quite clearly that it counts as a family nucleus only a single parent who is widowed or divorced, with a biological or adopted child. In other words, a never married single parent with child doesn't qualify.

The position was made explicit in an article published on Friday. The Ministry of Social and Family Development said babies of unwed mums will get many similar benefits as other babies - except for two: "Benefits such as the Baby Bonus cash gift and housing benefits are tied to the parent's marital status. The benefits will not be extended even if an unwed mother adopts her own child, as they are meant to encourage parenthood within marriage."

The state is closing its door once more in the face of unwed mums who need help with affordable housing.

This is by no means a new issue, and has been discussed in Parliament, and been the subject of countless articles in mainstream and social media, and was the subject of a report by women's activist group Aware.

Appeals to the Government to relax its stance have been made for decades. HDB says it does accede to appeals by single mums to buy or rent HDB flats, but it's on a case-by-case basis. In the last few years, about 20 per cent get Yes answers. But this still leaves the majority of single mums with kids in a potentially homeless situation for years. (Once the parent reaches 35 years old, he or she can buy a two-room subsidised flat from HDB, which will help ease things somewhat.)

For those of us who care about the issue, to whatever degree, what should we do?

First is to rail against zheng hu (Hokkien for government), of course. Plenty of angst is being vented this way this weekend, especially online.

Ms Tan (not her real name) started the adoption process for her two-year-old daughter last August. They now live with Ms Tan's parents in her brother's marital home. Once the adoption goes through, she hopes to buy a built-to-order flat in her and her daughter's names. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

To be fair to the Government, it has its reasons for holding the line at subsidised housing for single mums. It can argue, rightly, that kids of unwed mums are not discriminated against in any way: they get birth certs, they go to school, qualify for subsidised healthcare and childcare benefits, get Medisave and Child Development Account grants. But the state wants to encourage parenthood within marriage, and doesn't want to equalise its treatment of all parents.

I think the Government is also worried that relaxing the rules will result in more babies being born out of wedlock. What if allowing a single mum and her baby to get a flat creates a perverse incentive so people actually choose pregnancy to qualify for a flat? What if well-meaning welfare benefits end up undermining marriage, as this US article suggests? So I would go beyond scolding the Government for being heartless to single mums and their cute, innocent babies, and try to understand the big picture perspective of why it is so adamant to hold the line on this issue.

Social policy is difficult, as the results of a policy choice are often visible only years or decades later. They involve complex family decisions. Trade-offs are hard.

But I've long learnt to recognise that when the Singapore Government digs in its heels, there's not very much that activists can do to shift the ground to win the argument.

Instead, I think it's time people who care about the issue go the next step and band together to provide a solution for single mums. Don't rely on the Government. Rely on each other.

First, consider forming shared homes.

In Japan, Megumi Katanuma got a divorce in 2011 and had problems finding a place to live with her two teenage kids. She got a job, but spent hours away from her kids. Her solution: start a shared house where other single mums can pay rent for room and childcare services. She now runs Codona HAUSE. She and the other mums live in a house with four bedrooms and a living room with kitchen. Childcare services are offered twice a week from 6 to 9 pm so the mothers can have some time off, according to this article in Japan Times. The same article also mentioned Gasshoen, a private provider of social welfare services, especially eldercare services. This company recruits single mums and finds them housing with their children in shared accommodation.

Can single mums get together to rent a flat or house? Can agencies help match them? This helps reduce rental costs, and promotes peer-help.

A block of HDB flats. Social policy is difficult as the results of a policy choice are often visible only years later, but single mums with children could consider forming shared homes. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Next, start-ups and app developers, here's a crying social need that could do with your digital matching skills. Match single mums with kids who need housing, with kind people out there willing to rent out their spare bedroom or spare apartment to these folks. Some may be willing to do so for a few months; others for a year while they live overseas. Help single mums find each other to share a whole flat rental. Create an Airbnb for single mums with kids.

Real estate developers and architects, how about creating a new class of housing that will suit low-budget single parent families and retirees? Take a leaf from the co-housing movement taking off in some cities, where people live in rooms or studio units and share facilities like laundry areas and hang out together in communal spaces like kitchens and living areas. Rental for such rooms should be lower than renting an entire house or flat.

Next, consider a micro-financing model to help these single mums. Set up an organisation and raise funds to help single mums with kids find affordable housing. These funds can be administered as grants or loans. If a single mum can afford only $500 in rent, can a top-up help her secure a room in an HDB flat she can share with another single mum? If a single parent with three kids can afford only $500 in rent, can a top-up help her secure a three-room HDB flat? Can they be helped to move out of rental housing to afford to buy? Can the fathers be roped in to top-up to this fund for the mother?

When the Government says No, it's time to stop flogging a dead horse and time to turn to those who can better offer solutions: the community. In other words, ourselves. I'll do my small bit: if you want to help, email me with Single mums in the subject header and I'll try to link you up with each other.

Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong blogs weekly on notable issues and commentaries.

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