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Discrimination against LGBT and other singles[]

Public housing in Singapore is restricted by official policy, favouring "family units" which include prenuptial couples, newlyweds and childless heterosexual couples who have been married for a long time. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) used to justify its discriminatory policy towards singles (both gay and straight) by stating that land was scarce in Singapore and there was a high demand for flats.

In media releases regarding public housing, the Government and HDB never use the words "gay" or "LGBT", preferring instead to employ "single" as a euphemism for this demographic although, obviously, "single" also includes unmarried and divorced heterosexuals, the numbers of whom have mounted steadily over the decades. The Board's priority was to house families so only married couples who would likely produce children were entitled to subsidised public housing. The Government was also of the view then that the use of space would not be fully optimised if singles were allowed to occupy a whole flat. In addition, flat ownership by singles was inconsistent with the Government’s conservative social policy of encouraging marriage and preserving of the traditional family unit. However, a glut of public housing during the trough phases of economic cycles usually influences the HDB to liberalise their policy towards LGBT Singaporeans and singles, including single mothers[1],[2],[3].

Since same-sex marriage is illegal in Singapore, gay couples must either purchase flats in the private or resale HDB markets or wait until they are 35 years of age when they become eligible to buy new HDB flats under the Joint Singles Scheme (see below).

Landmark ruling changes for public housing for singles[]

1960s[]

The HDB was formed in 1960 as a successor to the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), a housing agency set up in 1927 by the British colonial authorities to meet the housing needs of their subjects. Singaporeans who met the eligibility criteria of being part of a family unit comprising at least two people were initially only permitted to rent HDB units. In 1964, the HDB set up the Home Ownership for the People Scheme to enable low income citizens to purchase a flat. In 1968, prospective buyers were allowed to use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings to pay for their apartments. Singles, however, were completely banned from owning a HDB flat.

1970s[]

In 1971, a HDB resale market was established, allowing homeowners to sell their flats after serving a minimum occupancy period.

In 1974, the establishment of the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) enabled eligible Singaporeans to buy a new category of flats which catered to the sandwich segment who could afford to buy a domicile more spacious and with better amenities than typical public housing but still unable to afford private housing. However, to reiterate Singapore's public housing policy, former Minister for National Development, S Dhanabalan, announced in 1988 that allowing singles to buy their own flats and live alone would be in direct conflict with the Government’s efforts to preserve the traditional family unit.

1980s[]

In 1980, the HUDC announced that singles could use their CPF savings to buy HUDC flats.

In a shockingly discriminatory U-turn in 1981, then Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, said the Government was reconsidering its policy of allowing singles to buy HUDC flats. He explained that allocating one flat to an individual would be wasteful and that many singles wishing to live on their own was a “disturbing and undesirable trend”. Allowing singles to apply for HUDC flats would lead to the premature breakup of the family unit, he added.

In 1981, to mollify its stance, the Government dropped its plan to prohibit singles from purchasing HUDC flats but announced that those under the age of 40 years would be placed on a waiting list until they formed a family nucleus.

In 1982, the HDB took over the management of HUDC flats.

1990s[]

A watershed regulatory change was instituted in October 1991 when the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme was introduced to allow single Singaporeans aged 35 years and above to purchase resale HDB flats. Initially, applicants could buy resale 3-room or smaller flats in any area except densely populated estates such as Bukit Merah, Geylang, Kallang, Whampoa, Queenstown, Farrer Road, Tanjong Rhu, Mountbatten, Outram Park and Beach Road. The programme was targeted at some 67,000 singles aged between 35 and 49. The scheme was implemented soon after then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced in his inaugural National Day Rally speech in 1991 that the Government was looking into reviewing the housing policy to help singles own or rent HDB flats. As most of the housing needs of families had been met by 1991, the Government acknowledged the fact that some Singaporeans chose not to marry and would prefer to live on their own. It probably also realised that many were gay but did not mention this explicitly. After the easing of the home ownership policy, some 3,007 LGBT and other singles bought resale HDB flats between October 1991 and January 1993.

In 1998, CPF housing grants were extended to singles.

2000s[]

The rules of the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme were further revised and relaxed in the new millennium. From August 2001 onwards, singles were permitted to buy 3-room or smaller resale HDB flats located in any area in Singapore, including the much sought after central region. In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proclaimed that commencing from September 2004, they were allowed to buy resale HDB flats of any size, including executive flats and maisonettes.

2010s[]

Singles allowed to buy new BTO flats[]

However, many LGBT and other singles were still indignant at being unfairly excluded from buying highly subsidised new flats. Sensing their dissatisfaction, the HDB changed the rules in 2013 to allow singles aged 35 and above to buy new 2-room or smaller BTO (build to order) flats in non-mature towns as first-time applicants. They were even given subsidies to do so[4]. Still, they are disadvantaged vis-à-vis married and prenuptial couples who do not face any age restrictions and are allocated shorter waiting times for BTO flats.


Demand was high in the early years of the rule change. There were 37.6 applicants on average vying for a single flat in 2013, but the number since tapered to 2.4 in 2019. This is because the flat supply for 2-room Flexi BTO flats in non-mature estates has remained steady at an average of about 4,000 units per year since 2014. In early 2020, the HDB announced that more such flats would be offered in Choa Chu Kang, Tengah and Woodlands for upcoming BTO exercises in May and August 2020.

Among its efforts to support affordable flat ownership among singles, the HDB said that those who bought a new flat before 11 September 2019 would receive up to $40,000 in housing grants comprising the Additional Central Provident Fund (CPF) Housing Grant (up to $20,000) and the Special CPF Housing Grant (up to $20,000). From July 2013 to December 2019, about $251 million in such grants was disbursed to about 11,400 singles buying new BTO flats. The two grants were replaced by the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (EHG) in September 2019.

The new grant gave eligible first-timer singles, aged at least 35 years and earning not more than $4,500 a month, up to $40,000. They could receive this grant whether they bought a new or resale flat, and with no restriction on flat type and location. The monthly income ceiling criterion was also raised in September 2019 - from $6,000 to $7,000 for eligible first-timer singles aged 35 and above to buy a flat from the HDB, to buy a resale flat on the open market with the CPF Housing Grant, and to get a HDB housing loan for the purchase of a new or resale flat.

Property experts felt that with the number of LGBT and other singles growing in tandem with the rest of the population, it was important that housing policies ensured that this group continued to be catered to. In 2008, the number of singles in Singapore was 918,700. Since then it had surged past the 1 million mark to 1,057,200 in 2018 – an increase of about 15%. There was a need for the HDB to build more flats to address this growing number of singles or else their dissatisfaction could grow and perhaps translate into votes against the Government in future general elections.

Problems faced[]

Despite the relaxation of regulations, LGBT and other singles still faced problems and disadvantages compared to their heterosexual married counterparts[5]. If they opted to buy a resale flat, they would typically have to pay a higher price than for a BTO flat, plus the property would come with a shorter lease. And while private property was always an alternative, the minimum down payment on a $1 million condominium was $250,000 (25% of the property price or valuation), which put it out of most people’s reach. For most singles, saving up for the 25% down payment and getting the loan approved were the main problems, as were issues like building a credit record.

For private properties and bank loans, individuals could only borrow up to 75% of the valuation or price (whichever was lower). Furthermore, 5% of the domicile must be paid for in cold, hard cash. Singles had to wait till they were 35 years of age to bid for a HDB flat and often encountered difficulties getting their preferred location. They were frustrated when they always only managed to get the unwanted leftover flats. Many decided to forego the rigmarole of applying for a HDB flat and instead tried their utmost to find ways and means to buy a condo immediately.

The situation was much easier for, say, a straight, married 27-year old Singaporean couple. They could buy a spacious 4-room BTO flat, at an average of $430,000 before subsidies. 90% of the flat’s price was covered by a HDB loan, while the remaining 10% using their CPF savings.

LGBT flat buyers could also get the same loan when they finally qualify to buy a flat, that is, up to 90% via a HDB loan. But that was only on condition that they waited and rented till they were 35. Assuming it cost $2,000 a month to rent an HDB flat, someone who rented from the age of 25 to 35 would be pouring a whopping $240,000 down the drain.

As for the suggestion that LGBT singles should just stay with their families, anyone with a finger on the pulse of reality would know it was naive. LGBT or not, it could be unbearable for many to live at home till 35. Some gay Singaporeans were forced to leave home because their parents were less than accepting. One man explained that he had to move out because: “My mum still hasn’t accepted the fact I’m gay, despite coming out to her eight years back. I find the living situation untenable. It sucks when your own flesh and blood doesn’t acknowledge your sexuality. But it’s 10 times worse when living under their roof forces you into a tacit, unspoken agreement that you will tolerate their attitude.”

This resulted in a bit of a double-whammy: a community that was more likely to need a place of its own, but struggled with getting a home. Renting was not easy either. Thankfully for the LGBT community, most, but not all, Singapore landlords would not ask questions about their sexual orientation. There were still incidences where landlords did query why two men stayed together, for example; and there had been situations where property agents were instructed not to rent to LGBT couples.

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2020s[]

HDB pilot scheme for singles applying for rental flats but unable to find flatmate announced[]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2EOZ5BwQ2o


On Thursday, 4 March 2021, Minister of State for National Development Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim announced that singles would be able to apply for public rental flats without having to find a flatmate first under a new pilot model to be rolled out later in the year. The alternative Joint Singles Scheme (JSS) model would seek to help those who may not be able to find a flatmate on their own, said Dr Faishal during the debate over his ministry's budget. Under the existing JSS model, two or more single persons may jointly apply for a public rental flat. They could apply with someone they knew or they could approach the HDB to help source for a flatmate. With the upcoming pilot model, the HDB would set aside a few floors in some rental blocks and appoint a social service agency to manage these flats, including the flat-sharing arrangements. "The social service agencies will have better expertise to match singles of similar profiles, and to mediate disagreements that may arise. If necessary, they can also arrange for individuals to move to another flat," Faishal said.

He was responding to questions raised by Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten SMC), Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) on the challenges some individuals may face in finding and living with a flatmate. However, Dr Faishal noted that most single tenants were prepared to share a flat with someone as this offered them companionship and mutual support, which was especially important for older tenants. "(Flat-sharing) also allows us to help as many who need a public rental flat as possible, within our limited resources," he explained. That said, HDB would look into requests from those with extenuating circumstances to rent a flat alone. For instance, some people may have medical conditions that made it unfeasible for them to share a flat, he added. To provide more privacy, HDB had been building new one-room rental flats with partitions that separate sleeping areas. Currently, 705 rental flats had these pre-installed partitions. Interested tenants living in older one-room rental flats can contact HDB to install such partitions too.

To be eligible to apply for a flat under the Public Rental Scheme as a single, the individual and the listed co-occupant must both be Singaporean citizens and single. To qualify, the applicant must be:

  • unmarried and at least 35 years old, or
  • divorced or legally separated from spouse, with legal documents, and at least 35 years old, or
  • widowed or orphaned, with at least one parent being a Singapore citizen or permanent resident before his/her death.

Property purchases by gay couples[]

Joint Singles Scheme[]

In 1990, the Joint Singles Scheme was established allow single Singaporean men and women from the ages of 40 and 35 years respectively to jointly purchase or rent a HDB flat[6]. The scheme was a revision and renaming of the Senior Citizens Scheme. Gay couples could also take advantage of the scheme.

Under the new ruling, the age limit for women was lowered from 40 to 35, and for men, it was reduced from 50 to 40. The change was introduced in response to public feedback to lower the minimum age so that more singles could qualify for public housing. While the age requirements were relaxed, the revised policy also tightened one other eligibility criterion to ensure that only Singaporean singles from age groups with low marriage rates benefited from the scheme. The new scheme stipulated that all applicants had to be Singapore citizens and satisfy the minimum age requirements. Under the Senior Citizens Scheme, only one applicant had to meet the upper age limit while the other joint applicant need only be 21 years and above.

The Joint Singles Scheme also included other conditions that were unchanged from the Senior Citizens Scheme. For instance, in order to qualify for a direct purchase from the HDB, applicants should not own private property, and their combined monthly income should not exceed S$5000. Applicants also need not be related or be of the same gender. These restrictions did not apply to joint applicants who purchased flats on the resale market.

The Joint Singles Scheme has been revised several times since its implementation in 1990. Today, up to 4 applicants may purchase a flat together. The age limits for single or divorced women and men is set at 35 years, while that for a widowed person or orphan is 21 years. There is also no income ceiling unless one applies for a housing grant from the Central Provident Fund (CPF) or a HDB loan.

Joint use of CPF for buying private property[]

On 19th July 2005, Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development made an announcement in Parliament in his Ministerial Statement on Policy Changes Affecting The Property Market which had a direct effect on gay and lesbian couples. Non-related singles would henceforth be allowed to use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings to jointly purchase private residential property. Prior to this, non-related parties were not allowed to use their CPF savings jointly in the purchase of private properties. Previously, only joint owners who were immediate family members (i.e., spouse, children, siblings and grand-parents) could utilise their CPF monies in the purchase of a property. With the relaxation of this rule, gay and lesbian couples who wished to purchase private property jointly, could use their CPF savings. In the past, while there was no restriction to 2 unrelated persons buying private property in joint names, they could not utilise their CPF savings in the purchase. As there was no restriction on the use of CPF savings by non-Singaporeans, it meant that non-related singles, Singaporean or not, would be allowed to use their CPF savings to jointly purchase private residential property.

Hong Kong court ruling[]

A ruling by Hong Kong's High Court on Wednesday, 4 March 2020 that the Hong Kong government’s policy of denying legally married same-sex couples the right to apply for public housing was unlawful and unconstitutional[7] raised hopes among their Singaporean counterparts that the same situation would one day apply in the island republic.

See also[]

References[]

Acknowledgements[]

This article was written by Roy Tan.

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