Vacant BTO flats for sale: Outcry over MOP breaches reflects broader public housing woes

At least three unrenovated BTO flats that appear to have never been lived in before are up for sale on property listing portals. PHOTOS: SCREENGRABS FROM PROPERTYGURU

SINGAPORE – Recent media reports of seemingly vacant Build-To-Order (BTO) flats put up for sale on property portals have got some Singaporeans up in arms.

These flats are completely bare and unrenovated, with no apparent signs of having been lived in during the mandatory five-year minimum occupation period (MOP).

On Thursday, the Housing Board said 53 errant flat owners who did not live in their flats during the MOP had been taken to task in the last six years. This translates to less than nine each year, a minority given that there are more than one million HDB flats in Singapore.

But these MOP breaches have irked some Singaporeans, with online reaction ranging from anger towards the flat owners to disappointment in the inadequacy of public housing policies to stamp out such unlawful practices.

The public outcry reflects broader unhappiness over public housing issues and the difficulties that some Singaporeans face in getting their BTO flats.

In the past two years, application rates for BTO flats, which are launched for sale by the HDB four times a year and allocated via balloting, have risen sharply. This is partly driven by a cohort of millennials reaching marriageable age and seeking their first home, the growing trend of smaller households, and the attractive BTO projects in mature estates on offer.

Anecdotally, it is not uncommon to hear of Singaporeans who have failed many times in their BTO applications, some of whom eventually give up and turn to the HDB resale market where home prices are higher.

Thus, it understandably does not sit well with many to see a group of owners who are lucky enough to buy a BTO flat even though they do not need to live in them, and yet are hoping to sell them for a profit.

In other words, Singaporeans are fed up with people gaming the public housing system.

When it comes to detecting such “vacant” BTO flats, much relies on the public to raise any suspicious misuse of flats via a toll-free hotline, which will then prompt the HDB to investigate.

But how many people are willing to tattle on their neighbour?

While the HDB conducts around 500 inspections monthly to detect violations of housing rules, these are likely more of a deterrence and there may well be rule-breakers who go undetected.

This raises the question: Is there a more efficient way of detecting such cases instead of relying on public feedback, which may be unreliable and sporadic?

Netizens have raised the possibility of the HDB requesting monthly utilities bills, prior to the completion of any resale transaction, to see if HDB flats were occupied. But this may complicate paperwork and could run the risk of being too intrusive.

A more effective way could be to go after the property agents who may knowingly or unknowingly assist this group of owners in selling their flats.

Agents who come across these seemingly vacant flats should probe their sellers for further details, and report any suspicions to the HDB.

The board has said that every HDB flat sold on the open market is inspected as part of the selling process, and tell-tale signs of a home that has not been lived in will be investigated.

While owners who allow their flats to sit empty for years but have no intention of selling will likely not be detected, these cases should be in the minority, as the opportunity costs of tying one’s name to an unutilised HDB flat do not make much financial sense.

There may also be owners who choose to forgo an agent’s service, but navigating the resale process on their own will likely already pose some difficulties in selling.

In 2021, over 31,000 HDB flats were sold on the resale market.

The matter of “vacant” BTO flats on sale comes as the affordability of HDB resale flats and the pricing and availability of BTO flats have been in the spotlight in recent months.

In a recent interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said his ministry is looking into various aspects of public housing policies as part of the Forward Singapore exercise, and is prepared to consider major changes to meet the needs of the times – including possibly relooking the allocation of flats to prioritise first-time applicants with pressing housing needs.

It is an opportune time to address the issue of MOP breaches as part of the broad review, and consider whether they warrant more stringent enforcement action moving forward.

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