SINGAPORE — When Ms Subashini, a relief security guard, heard that her Housing and Development Board (HDB) block in West Plains@Bukit Batok had a mix of units which included public rental flats for the lower-income, she was not happy.
The 41-year-old owns a three-room Build-to-Order (BTO) flat and having lived in a public rental unit before, she believes that there are “a lot of differences” between these rental tenants and homeowners, such as the former not taking care of the common areas and not respecting the neighbours and their privacy.
“Sometimes they like to do things at a very late timing, and they like to take up the space outside the corridor, and they smoke along the corridor. You can also hear a lot of quarrels and noise,” said Ms Subashini, who claimed that she did not know about the rental flats in the block when she applied for her unit.
While Ms Subashini, who declined to give her full name, is not a fan of integrated blocks, she did share that she has had some positive experiences with families from rental units in her block since moving into Block 468B, Bukit Batok Street 41 in 2021.
“It’s mostly because of my two children who are 10 and 12 years old. We would meet the other rental unit families in the playground where our children would play together, and we would end up having a conversation about different shared interests,” she said of her neighbours at the West Plains@Bukit Batok development.
For Mr Ashvin Pillai, 25, who has been living in a two-room rental unit at Block 182A, Woodlands Street 13 in Marsiling Greenview for two years, living in an integrated block can help to uplift lower income families so that they do not feel “chucked aside”.
“Usually rental flats are far away from BTO or owned flats or the resale flats. So this type of block coming up is actually quite good as it keeps everyone equal,” he said.
One of the biggest differences in living in an integrated block for the survey officer is the access to amenities as typical rental blocks do not have them nearby.
“I have been very happy living here because this BTO has a wide range of shops including hair salons, clinics and a coffee shop which is just outside,” said Mr Pillai.
There has long been stigma associated with public rental flats and studies have shown that HDB home buyers want to live far away from HDB rental blocks, which are seen as undesirable and could possibly affect nearby property values.
In an effort to promote more inclusive neighbourhoods, HDB has since 2014 introduced integrated blocks with public rental and sold units in its BTO projects.
To date, HDB has launched a total of 20 integrated blocks across 13 BTO projects, including three blocks that have since been completed in Marsiling Greenview, West Plains@Bukit Batok, and Fernvale Glades.
Sharing a similar view, 15-year-old Amirul said that it has been “much better” living in the two-room rental unit with his family at Block 182A, especially with the clutter-free corridors that have made it much easier for him to get around.
However, the student felt that more could be done to integrate rental tenants into the community.
“Outings could be organised with the community and neighbours could show appreciation to one another by sharing food,” he said.
A BTO flat owner who wanted to be known only as Madam Nor has remained positive about the rental tenants who have become her neighbours, even though she was initially unaware that she would be living in an integrated block.
“Sometimes homeowners may not be happy with the renters, saying that they are noisy, but I say that as neighbours, we have to understand each other,” said the 61-year-old housewife.
Having stayed in an interim rental flat before she got her own two-room unit in Marsiling Greenview, Mdm Nor has never experienced any issues with rental tenants.
“Although we bought and own a flat, we should not look down on people who rent a flat.”
As someone who had been a grassroots leader when she was living in Choa Chu Kang, she hopes to have more activities as a way to mix and bond with her rental unit neighbours.
Mdm Nor said with a laugh: “Now that Covid is over, we should try and have more outings like a heritage tour!”
CONCERNS ABOUT RENTAL TENANTS
While there may be some who welcome the idea of integrated blocks, others, like 71-year-old Madam Sim, still have some reservations about mixing rental and sold units in a BTO block.
Mdm Sim, who declined to give her full name, had been living in a maisonette until she moved into her three-room BTO flat in West Plains@Bukit Batok after her husband’s illness left him wheelchair-bound.
Though the retiree sees her rental flat neighbours every now and then, she rarely speaks to them except for the typical “hello” when they meet in the common area.
Her concerns about sharing a block with rental tenants stem from her seeing more people smoking and the state of cleanliness in the common areas.
In addition to the rubbish that she would often find along the corridor, Mdm Sim had to put up with the unbearable waft of cigarette smoke that led her to close the windows and doors to keep the smell out.
“Sometimes they would smoke in the morning and sometimes late at night which was why I had to call the town council for a solution,” she said.
Mdm Sim added that the cigarette smoke has since stopped being an issue, though she was not sure if it was because of the town council’s intervention.
Another pressing concern of hers is the growing number of people she has seen going in and out of the flats on her floor, and in her block.
“I used to be able to walk around my corridor late at night, but I’ve not been able to now due to the increase in the number of people and unfamiliar faces,” said Mdm Sim.
Although engaged couple Ms Lydia, 35, and Mr Shiva, 41, did not have the same experience as Mdm Sim, Ms Lydia said that since moving into her rental unit, she has learned to “mind her own business” to avoid conflicts with other homeowners.
The couple, who declined to give their full names, occupy a one-bedroom rental unit in Marsiling Greenview with their son and dog.
As compared to Ms Lydia’s previous stay in a public rental unit in Teck Whye where she had heard of two murders and a suicide, the move to Marsiling Greenview has made her feel like she is an “equal in society” because it does not feel like she is living in a rented home.
Still, the housewife has found it difficult to maintain friendships after a falling out with her neighbours from the BTO units on other floors who now consider her a “negative person”.
Ms Lydia did not elaborate on what the issue was between her and the neighbours, except that it started after she “tried to help them out”.
“For me now, I will choose to keep quiet and live my own life. I won’t interact with anybody so as to avoid unnecessary problems.”
Ms Lydia’s fiance, on the other hand, feels that a change in mindsets can help tenants and homeowners to live harmoniously.
As an ex-convict, Mr Shiva said that homeowners should realise that not all ex-convicts and people living in rental flats are “problematic people”.
He added that rental tenants must also change their attitude as well.
“They must change their own way of life to better cohesively live peacefully together with homeowners, and if that happens, we won’t be having any problems,” said Mr Shiva, who is self-employed.
Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said that some prospective homeowners may be reluctant to buy homes in integrated blocks due to negative public perception around public rental housing.
Such perception could have its source in class prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination, and reinforced by some actual encounters with rental housing residents and conditions of rental blocks, he said.
However, Assoc Prof Tan added the positive features of new estates where integrated blocks are located would still appeal to some BTO applicants.
He added that integrated blocks are generally a good idea as the physical proximity of rental and BTO units could facilitate social interaction.
“The practical implication here is that the social gap between the rental units and the BTO units must not be too far apart, for example, having a one-room rental unit adjacent to an executive apartment,” he said.
Assoc Prof Vincent Chua from NUS’ Department of Sociology and Anthropology believes that physical proximity may facilitate but not guarantee social proximity as there can still be a perception of different class relations between homeowners and rental unit tenants.
He added that mixing both rental and sold units is better than dedicating floors or sections to it because segregation would draw unfavourable attention to rental units and strengthen the perception of them as “subordinate”.
His colleague, Professor Chua Beng Huat, believes that it is hard to change the perception around rental units when homeowners are concerned with the monetary value of their flats, which will be negatively affected by the presence of renters.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?
In a written response to a parliamentary question in March this year, the Ministry of National Development said that early findings from an ongoing study on the lived experience of residents in integrated blocks showed that “residents are more likely to form ties with neighbours living on the same floor than with others living further away, and building sold and rental flats on the same floors has brought about interactions and ties between owners and tenants”.
The findings “reaffirm that mixed blocks are important for inclusive public housing”, the ministry said.
Assoc Prof Tan believes that if the Government is serious about reducing class segregation, then there are good reasons to introduce more mixed blocks going forward.
“If it is deemed important to encourage cross-class interaction, then every new BTO project or town renewal programme should incorporate integrated blocks in its plans,” said Assoc Prof Tan.
Agreeing, NUS sociologist Chua Beng Huat, who was formerly HDB’s director of research, said that the conservative number of integrated blocks being built suggests that it is still an experimental concept with the aim of influencing renters to adopt ownership of their units, just like homeowners.
Mr Murali, the Bukit Batok MP, told TODAY that while he acknowledged that there are negative perceptions of rental unit residents among owners of sold units, it can be overcome through active citizenry.
He added that integrated blocks would make it possible to promote better understanding and mixing between families from different social backgrounds.
He also hopes that the mixing of units will empower the community to help one another in times of need because even though residents in rental flats will need support, they are also excellent in helping to mobilise people, organise parties and spearhead community-based initiatives.
When asked if there might be special plans to bring rental unit occupants and homeowners together, Mr Zaqy the Marsiling GRC MP told TODAY that there is no plan for a specific type of event to bring tenants and homeowners together as he does not wish to put “too big a spotlight” on rental unit occupants.
He feels that the current efforts by Resident Committees of holding various celebrations and get-togethers are already helpful in bringing residents together while still protecting the dignity of the rental unit occupants.
Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh, who oversees Fernvale, shared with TODAY that he plans to organise activities and encourage interaction between homeowners and rental unit occupants when the tenants move in.
One way to do this is to have volunteers of grassroots organisations organise activities for bonding and interaction, he said.
“Whether it is a rental unit or a non-rental unit, we will try to encourage residents to interact and have good neighbourliness, as well as encourage them to look out for one another,” said Mr Gan.
While it is a good idea to mix rental and BTO units for social integration, more efforts are needed to encourage interactions among the residents, said Assoc Prof Tan.
“Reducing physical distance does not necessarily translate into reducing social distance,” he said.
Residents also have a part to play, he added.