Review of HDB town classification likely to come with policy changes: Desmond Lee

Estate classification was previously based on the physical attributes of the estates, such as transportation connectivity. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Any adjustment to the classification of public housing estates as mature or non-mature, which is now being studied, is likely to come with other policy changes to ensure that flats remain accessible and affordable to a wide spectrum of Singaporeans, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

“The current classification causes a bit of disjoint in people’s minds because there are some non-mature estates that command very high application rates,” said Mr Lee in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Times and Lianhe Zaobao on Nov 30 on the present and future of public housing in Singapore.

Sometimes, the high demand is because the Housing Board hasn’t built new flats in these areas for some time, but more often than not, it is because some Build-To-Order (BTO) projects in non-mature estates come with very attractive attributes, said Mr Lee.

In comparison, some BTO projects in mature estates may not be close to amenities, or have attributes that make them less popular, and command less market value than these attractive BTO projects in non-mature estates, he added.

A review of the mature versus non-mature classification could end a decades-long yardstick by which prospective home buyers judged HDB locations, with mature estates perceived as having better amenities and transportation networks, among other things.

While the classification is often taken as a shorthand for a flat’s attractiveness and, therefore, affordability, developments over the years may make it less relevant now, said Mr Lee.

For instance, a BTO project in the non-mature estate of Jurong East in August 2021, the first in a decade, drew more than 12 first-time applicants for each of the available four-room flats located next to the upcoming Toh Guan MRT station on the Jurong Region Line.

In the same launch, a Kallang/Whampoa BTO project drew about six-time first-time applicants, while a Queenstown BTO project saw around five such applicants. The latter two are considered mature estates.

“Classification affects both expectation and perception of availability, pricing and demand of new flats. Already you see that the current classification does not necessarily lead to differences on those three parameters,” said Mr Lee.

“We want to make sure the classification reflects ground reality and people’s expectations. That’s the feedback that we’re getting and hence, we’re looking at whether future housing policies need to evolve, bearing in mind the changing face of our estates.”

In the interview, Mr Lee outlined three main considerations guiding the review, which he first brought up at a Forward Singapore public engagement session in November.

The first is whether estates need to be classified at all. The second is that any classification must better reflect the realities of today’s estates, he said.

“Thirdly, if we have new classifications or no classifications at all, what are the policy changes that will follow to ensure that these flats remain accessible and affordable to a wide spectrum of Singaporeans?” said Mr Lee.

Estate classification, which started in 1992, was previously based on the physical attributes of the estates, such as transportation connectivity and amenities, which may not hold true today, he said.

Citing Hougang, Sengkang, Jurong East and Jurong West, including Jurong Lake District, all of which are currently classified as non-mature estates, Mr Lee said: “Just by the sheer physical attributes, they are quite different from non-mature estates of the past.”

“The gap between mature and non-mature estates is fast closing in terms of connectivity, convenience, amenities, quality and diversity of housing. The (plots of) land available for development are now looking much closer to each other,” he said.

One suggestion to his ministry has been to look at the attributes of individual BTO projects to determine what the projects should be labelled or classified as, he said, without giving further details.

Stressing that the review is still in “its early days”, Mr Lee said the exercise is to ensure that the classification remains relevant, while supported by housing policies that allow the Government to build affordable public housing in attractive locations.

Another area the Government is studying is how it can further prioritise access to public housing for first-time applicants with pressing housing needs. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

The review is part of the Forward Singapore exercise, a year-long exercise involving Singaporeans that aims to refresh the social compact. It will conclude with a report in mid-2023, with possible mid-term milestones – for instance, in the Budget 2023.

Another area the Government is studying is how it can further prioritise access to public housing for first-time applicants with pressing housing needs, said Mr Lee.

These include couples who already have children but are without their own home, lower-income families with fewer options in the market, singles, and seniors preparing for retirement financial needs.

While it is clear that most Singaporeans want the allocation of housing to be better calibrated, the challenge is reaching a consensus on defining whose needs are more urgent, he said.

On the infrastructure front, Mr Lee said the Government is studying, over the next few years, the potential of having common spaces that can serve as co-working spaces in public and private housing.

HDB is also considering offering flats with more open floor plans to allow home owners the flexibility to configure the various spaces according to their needs.

Looking ahead, Mr Lee said that the Forward Singapore exercise is an opportune time to do a stocktake, and refresh, of Singapore’s public housing strategy while understanding what Singaporeans want.

“Forward Singapore is a major exercise and, for our public housing, we’re prepared to consider major changes if it involves meeting the needs of the times and evolving social compact,” he said.

“Source:[Review of HDB town classification likely to come with policy changes: Desmond Lee] © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction”

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