SINGAPORE — More spacious, uplifting designs in public housing rental flats could help families living there achieve financial self-sufficiency and upward social mobility quicker, a Member of Parliament (MP) said on Tuesday (Nov 7).
Ms Carrie Tan, MP for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said more pleasing aesthetics, colour, and lighting in these flats could boost families’ mental well-being and potential for upward mobility.
In an adjournment motion in Parliament, Ms Tan added that overcrowding is a key problem facing families in Housing and Development Board (HDB) rental flats.
In response, Minister of State for National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said his ministry empathises with her point about providing a good living environment for rental families with young children.
The ministry has been making efforts in this area and will seek to further improve the design of flats, he added.
In her speech, Ms Tan rejected a long-held belief that providing a pleasing and comfortable environment for public rental housing residents might demotivate them from working hard to move out to their own place.
The average time for a rental housing family to move to their own place is about seven years, according to data Ms Tan had sought from Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Ministry of National Development (MND) in previous sittings.
In May 2021, in a written reply to Sembawang GRC MP Mariam Jaafar’s question on the rate on transition by rental flat families to their own homes, MND said that 36 per cent do so five years after entering public rental.
Ms Tan said on Tuesday that rather than operating under the assumption that a lack of personal motivation is to blame for poor social mobility outcomes, a more scientific and proactive approach should be considered.
The Government should study possible enhancements to environmental factors that can be implemented, she added.
LIVING CONDITIONS IN RENTAL FLATS
Ms Tan said that the need for better design in HDB rental flats can be seen by the issues of cleanliness and overcrowding in rental flat estates, which can hamper the motivation and well-being of rental flat residents in pursuing social mobility.
Many Town Councils deploy more cleaning and maintenance resources in rental block areas as the general cleanliness upkeep in rental estates is more challenging than those in estates with purchased flats, Ms Tan said.
This is due to higher rates of high-rise littering, misuse or poor use of common chutes, dirty common corridors and void decks in estates with rental flats, she added.
Ms Tan said that she raised this point not to shame rental flat tenants, but to urge an examination into why they may have “little willingness or motivation” to help maintain common spaces, and into motives for civic behaviour more broadly.
EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT
She added that in a football programme for children run by Nee Soon South, Yishun Health and SportsSG, those from rental flats were found to have poorer hand-eye coordination and could not throw or catch as well as other children.
This could be the result of space constraints at home, which would limit the amount of play within flats, ultimately compromising the psychomotor development of children who live in cramped spaces, she said.
Ms Tan urged the MND and MSF to research the impact of living spaces on early childhood development outcomes.
“How can we expect children to study, play, learn and grow up well physically, emotionally and mentally in such conditions?” she said.
Overcrowding due to smaller flat sizes can also lead to poor health as infections spread among family members more easily, she said.
Poor health can then lead to challenges such as poor employment retention and more frequent school absences for those living in rental blocks communities.
“But if we pause to think about it, might it not be because they are struggling more in their day to day lives due to basic, bare-bone and often stressful living conditions which they do not have the resources to improve on, on their own?
“Home becomes a place just to survive but not to thrive in. We underestimate the amount of energy it takes to overcome challenges inherent in the current rental housing premises, leaving less energy for constructive actions such as focusing on job performance, or school performance,” she added.
Ms Tan asked if any minimum space per resident level is adhered to, as the latest Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) guidelines issued in January this year state that “the threshold of 70sqm is a reasonable size for small families”.
She added that she often sees families with up to five children living in a two-room rental flat during her house visits.
Under the public rental housing scheme, one or two-room flats are the norm, as three-room flats are offered to larger families on a limited, case-by-case basis, Ms Tan said.
In his response, Associate Professfor Faishal said that HDB generally offers one and two-room rental flats to cater to both singles and families. More than nine in 10 public rental households have four or fewer persons, he added.
While there is no hard norm on space per person, he said that MND recognises that some larger households may have space concerns. The ministry is working to use design to overcome land and space constraints.
For example, in recent years, HDB has started building two-room rental flats with an additional partitioned space that can be used as a child’s room or as a study or activity room to support children’s development, he said.
RE-DESIGNING RENTAL FLATS FOR AESTHETICS
Ms Tan also cited psychological research showing how aesthetic experiences can affect mood and indirectly promote health.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that people who worked in aesthetically pleasing environments were more productive and had a greater sense of well-being than those who worked in less aesthetically pleasing environments.
Research has also shown benefits of improving the aesthetic experience on an individual’s well-being include better memory, lower stress levels, and more social connections.
A more beautiful living space can help residents feel more relaxed in their home, rather than feeling fearful and on high alert, the research showed.
This in turn can help residents to focus better on actions such as applying for jobs and getting their children to school, Ms Tan said.
She acknowledged that the cost of making such aesthetic changes might be an obstacle especially in fiscally challenging times.
However, she suggested that the long-term positive returns in terms of well-being and savings for the affected communities could outweigh the short-term costs involved.
Ms Tan also urged MND to partner with the philanthropic and private sectors and work with local arts groups and designers to develop uplifting designs and furnishings for rental flats.
TAKING A ‘HOLISTIC’ APPROACH
In his response, Assoc Prof Faishal said that “progressive improvements” have been made to rental flats to enhance the design and living environment for tenants.
Public rental flats have been built alongside owner-occupied flats in the same projects since 2014, and are in the same blocks and on the same floors, said Assoc Prof Faishal.
For example, in integrated blocks such as those at Marsiling Greenview and West Plains at Bukit Batok, public rental flats have similar finishes and fittings as two-room Flexi sold flats.
For older public rental blocks, the HDB typically upgrades them alongside owner-occupied blocks in various upgrading programmes.
Assoc Prof Faishal added that helping families achieve social mobility and ensure that seniors age well, even in public rental flats, would require more than hardware alone.
“We need to pair hardware with good social support and programming, to make concerted efforts to address households’ needs and aspirations holistically,” he said.
Families with young children who live in public rental flats can benefit from the ComLink+ programme, where family coaches and ComLink officers aim to better understand families’ needs and aspirations, and work with them to develop goals and action plans, he added.
Under the ComLink Rental Scheme launched in November last year, eligible families applying for a public rental flat will automatically be enrolled in ComLink+. So far, more than 700 families have been engaged under the scheme.