More families in rental flats to get grants to help them own home; older rental blocks to be spruced up

Neighbours Teo Geok Lan (right), 61, and Leong Lye Chan (left), 57, hanging out at an empty area where a one-room unit used to be on the fifth floor at Block 217 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Lower-income families will get a lot more help in their home ownership journey, from getting grants to buy resale flats to a dedicated team to monitor their progress.

In all, six MPs raised questions on how to help this group and on Thursday (March 7), the Ministry of National Development unveiled an unprecedented slew of measures to uplift them.

Take the Step-Up CPF Housing Grant, which gives lower-income families living in subsidised two-room flats $15,000 to buy new three-roomers. The flats must be in non-mature estates.

This sum will be extended to families in rental flats, as well as those who wish to buy resale flats, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

He noted that the number of families in rental flats who go on to buy their own homes has doubled over the last five years, from 700 to 1,300.

But some MPs pointed out that the total number is relatively small: Over the last six years, there have been about 3,500 such families - out of 56,000 in total.

There will also be several enhancements to the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, which was launched in 2016 to help families with young children in rental flats buy a second HDB flat of their own. Since December 2016, 74 families have joined the scheme.

This includes the setting up of an intensified support programme to help Fresh Start families stay on track in their journey to home ownership. It will be run by a service provider appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Sun Xueling said: "We have found through our experience that closer and more regular contact with families allows for early intervention to address issues that may emerge."

This programme is in addition to Ms Sun's announcement on Tuesday that there will be a dedicated HDB team to spot and reach out to rental families who might be eligible to buy a home.

Another change is that the authorities will give selected families who applied for Fresh Start but did not meet some of the criteria "special consideration" to join.

This would benefit about 80 families over the next three years, she said.

Also, to qualify for Fresh Start, one of the current criteria is that the family needs to have at least one child below the age of 16. But the age limit will now be increased to 18 to benefit more families, said Ms Sun. She did not say how many more families would qualify.

The new age limit will also be applied to the Parenthood Priority Scheme and the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (Divorced/Widowed Parents).

Ms Sun also said the Housing Board will not increase rents for families in public rental flats but who have made down payments and signed the leases for their own homes.

Typically, rental rates are reviewed every two years, and are tiered according to household income.

"We hope this will put households in good stead for their next milestone as home owners," she said.

But apart from giving rental families a leg up, existing tenants will also get a better living environment.

Ms Sun said the HDB will carry out improvement works to older rental blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s, which have long central corridors and units on both sides, making them quite dark and musty at times.

It will do so by demolishing several units on each floor to improve airflow and brightness.

Also, tenants sharing one-room rental flats under the Joint Singles Scheme will see their homes come with partitions to offer more privacy.

Mr Wong, who announced this move, said: "We recognise that tenants prefer some privacy... so HDB will make available these partitions for all JSS units, in both existing and new rental blocks."

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