SINGAPORE - Eighteen property agents were taken to task between 2017 and 2022 for helping their clients to market Housing Board flats that breached the agency’s mandatory five-year minimum occupation period (MOP) rule.
Of these, six agents had their registration suspended for between seven and 48 weeks and were fined between $2,000 and $5,000 by the Council for Estate Agencies’ (CEA) disciplinary committee, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said in Parliament on Monday.
Another two agents received letters of censure – which are issued for minor disciplinary breaches – with one of them fined $1,000. The remaining 10 agents were issued warning letters for their disciplinary breaches.
These property agents were found to have breached the code set by the CEA that requires them to ensure that no law, including those that apply to HDB properties, is infringed as part of their work.
CEA investigated 51 cases involving 69 property agents in the past five years, with 19 cases still under investigation, Mr Lee said in response to questions filed by nine MPs on the issue of Build-To-Order (BTO) flat owners flouting MOP rules.
This comes after some seemingly vacant and unrenovated BTO flats were reported to be up for sale on property portals in December. Agents who listed the units described them as a “blank canvas” and “never stayed in before, brand new”.
Property agents who have reasonable cause to suspect that MOP rules have been infringed should inform their clients of the potential consequences and stop marketing the property, said Mr Lee.
Property agents are not legally required to report suspected breaches to CEA or HDB but should advise their clients to abide by HDB’s regulations, said the Ministry of National Development in response to queries from The Straits Times.
HDB flat owners have to live in their units for five years before they can put them up for sale on the open market – a longstanding policy meant to reinforce public housing as a home to live in.
Mr Lee said owners who cannot fulfil their MOP due to changes in their circumstances must return their flat to the HDB.
Between 2017 and 2022, a total of 258 BTO flats and 168 resale flats were returned to the HDB, mainly due to changes in the owners’ circumstances within the MOP which made them ineligible to own an HDB flat, he added. These circumstances include divorce or separation, death of the owner and medical reasons, he said.
Mr Lee said owners who are genuinely unable to live in their flat during the MOP, such as those posted overseas for work, should write to HDB to seek a waiver. These appeals will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
He added that HDB detects potential infringement of HDB rules through a range of methods, including regular inspections, feedback from the public and property agents.
Data analytics and other tools are also used to detect potential infringement, he said, declining to go into details, as some involve confidential investigative methods.
Since 2017, HDB has conducted random checks on about 35,000 homes as part of its regular inspection routine, he said.
HDB also received around 4,700 pieces of feedback on potential infringements relating to MOP rules from the public and agents, said Mr Lee. These include cases of flats being listed for resale in bare or “brand new” condition.
He said HDB tries to strike a balance in detecting and investigating breaches.
“On the one hand, we want to ensure that HDB rules are complied with by detecting and deterring errant owners who infringe the rules. On the other hand, we do not want to overly impinge upon the privacy of the 1.1 million HDB home owners, the vast majority of whom abide by the rules.”
Between 2017 and November 2022, 53 errant flat owners who did not live in their HDB flats during the MOP were taken to task. Of these, 21 had their flats compulsorily acquired by the HDB.
Depending on the severity of the breach, HDB may issue a written warning, impose a fine of up to $50,000 or compulsorily acquire the flat.
Owners whose flats are compulsorily acquired by HDB will also be debarred from buying a subsidised flat, taking over such a flat by changing flat ownership or renting a public rental flat from HDB for five years.
Mr Lee acknowledged that the issue of MOP breaches has caused some unhappiness among Singaporeans. “We also recognise the concerns by members of the public, sometimes anger, when they see such actions being taken by people around them when they, and many other HDB owners, comply with the rules and are concerned about whether the playing field is level,” he said.
He reiterated that HDB takes rule violations seriously and will not hesitate to take enforcement action against errant owners.
Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) wanted to know the circumstances in which HDB would acquire a flat.
Mr Lee replied: “When we take firm action, it is quite clear from the evidence from the interviews and investigations that they had no intention to live in those homes, or felt they could get away with it by living somewhere else, leave the place empty and sell it after MOP to gain the upside.”
Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) asked if HDB will consider increasing the penalties for such cases, including a longer debarment period.
In response, Mr Lee said HDB will continue to review the penalties and the impact of greater awareness of the MOP rules among Singaporeans at large first.