Side Views

The squeeze factor — Colin Tan

MARCH 9 — The recent saga in Toh Yi estate, Singapore where a petition by some residents to stop the building of a block of studio apartments for the elderly in their neighbourhood, as well as the earlier case of Woodlands residents opposing to an eldercare centre being built at their void deck, shocked many right-minded Singaporeans.

Are some of us so caught up in the rat race that we have become so uncaring and unfeeling towards our fellow Singaporeans? Surely, the housing needs of the elderly are of greater importance than the open space of a void deck, greenery, a playground or a car park?

Were the affected residents right to act as they did? Some reasons given were selfish ones, such as the perceived loss in the value of their flats.

In the case of Toh Yi estate, residents cited the loss of a basketball court, jogging track and community garden — the area’s main recreational facilities. How many of them actually use these facilities? And of these, how many actually objected? Probably just a few, so why the hue and cry?

However, if you read deeper into their reasons, you will realise that it is not so much the loss of amenities that matter but the open spaces that come with them. I would include the void deck in this list.

I am thinking: is this more a problem of overcrowding than a loss of amenities or hard-to-quantify material gains?

I used to live in an HDB slab block in a mature estate where the spacing between blocks was a lot more generous than in today’s newer estates and where there were many shrubs and other greenery.

Today, when I pay a visit to my parents’ place, car parks occupy what used to be greenery. And half the void decks in the precinct are occupied by facilities such as childcare centres, social service centres and day-care rehabilitation centres for the elderly. The residents have no complaints but the neighbourhood feels a lot less spacious and, in a way, claustrophobic.

Scientific studies have shown that rats kept in boxes that are progressively made smaller ended up biting each other.

Are the residents with a lower threshold of tolerance beginning to feel the negative effects of overcrowding? Are they just hitting out without really understanding why they are reacting this way?

The loss of the open spaces provided by void decks could not be avoided in the older estates as we could not have anticipated that we would require so many other social amenities that come with the changes in the population profile. In any case, it was a lot faster and cheaper to provide them at void decks than erect another physical structure to house the amenity.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, could we not with proper planning cater ahead for the provision of these social amenities without taking away our void decks.

Depending on the designs, it could certainly help a lot with lowering any perception of overcrowding, if not now, than in the future when our population density rises even further.

And if void decks are no longer part of the HDB architects’ designs, could we not re-instate them even if they are not so spacious with more tower block configurations?

As Singapore becomes more built-up and as our population density rises, void decks and open spaces will become more of a treasured amenity.

Still on housing policies, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan recently unveiled a host of new measures, including a six-fold increase in the executive condominium (EC) allocation and a three-fold increase in the Built-To-Order (BTO) flat supply allocation in non-mature estates for second-timers.

I am asked if this would help relieve some the pressure on HDB resale prices.

Previously, a second-timer could realistically only turn to HDB resale flats to upgrade themselves as their chances of securing an EC or a BTO flat were very low.

If more of them turn to ECs and BTOs, their numbers would not add to the supply of resale flats as the owners still need to occupy them while their new units are being built. This means the impact on prices would be marginal.

Of course, some may choose to sell now and rent while waiting for their keys to the new flats. I am just not sure how sophisticated this group of second-timer buyers are.

However, what is certain is that the volume of resale transactions will be reduced, depending on the numbers opting to buy ECs and BTO flats — and with it, HDB resale estate agents’ commissions. — Today

* Colin Tan is head of research and consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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