Old block, new faces

Rental flats today are no longer just a shelter for the destitute. With the worsening economy, some middle-class families, faced with financial hardship, have been forced to downgrade. How are the newly poor, who are now moving into one-room flats, coping with their new environment, envy and hostility?

THIS is the last place Mr Ramah Arif (not his real name), 33, expected to end up.

A cheap, far from cheerful one-room rental flat, hostile neighbours and about as far down the housing ladder as one can go.

In 2006, he moved into Block 2, Jalan Kukoh after selling his four-room flat in Little India. He had quit his job to care for his ailing mother who was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome. The disease, which attacks a person’s blood vessels, had left her bedridden.

‘I couldn’t keep up with the mortgage without the steady income,’ says Mr Ramah.

With his parents divorced and his sister married with her own family, the bachelor has spent over $20,000 of his savings on his mum’s medical bills in the past three years.

Before he moved in, the business administration diploma holder who worked as an accounts manager for a local telecommunications firm used to earn more than $3,000 a month – easily five times that of the average blue-collar resident living in the block.

He had never before seen the interior of a one-room rental flat, let alone lived in one.

He is not alone. A survey last year of 264 units in the same block found that half its residents had downgraded from three- and four-room flats in new towns such as Yishun, Woodlands and Sengkang.

Most were plagued by financial problems. Others had lost their jobs, from around 1998 to 2005, when an estimated 126,000 people in Singapore were laid off and forced to sell their flats when they could not meet their mortgages.

The loss of status has made it a painful, even humiliating, transition. Many still struggle daily to deal with the smallness, litter, crime and disregard for social niceties in a rental block.

There are 42,800 HDB rental flats in Singapore today. These one- and two- room flats, each ranging from 26 to 45 sq m, were first built by the HDB in the 1960s to provide immediate housing for people cleared from their squatters and slums.

But as the HDB began building bigger flats and introducing home ownership schemes, these rental flats became subsidised housing for the elderly and destitute. Depending on the size of the flat, monthly rent ranges from $26 to $275.

To rent such a flat, one must be a Singaporean or Permanent Resident aged over 21, with a total monthly household income not exceeding $1,500, and apply with a ‘proper family nucleus’, such as with a spouse or parents. Singles above 35 can apply with other singles.

NEW RESIDENTS

AS PART of the Housing Board’s Rental Flat Upgrading Project since 2001, the ageing estate of Block 2 has seen various upgrades such as better lifts, metal grilles for doors and hand-grips for the elderly.

But these physical changes are minor, compared with the changing tenant base at Block 2, as the downturn creates a whole new class of residents.

These new entrants usually come from middle-income backgrounds. Some are single parents getting over a divorce, others are middle-aged former home-owners who have fallen on hard times, yet others are cost-conscious newly-weds starting families.

Generally, the newcomers are better- educated, possess at least a primary school education and are comfortable speaking English. Quite a few work as professionals, managers, executives and technicians and think of Block 2 as transitional housing.

Contrast this to the earlier generations of residents: mostly elderly, who have never had formal education and have erratic incomes as odd-job labourers. Many have lived in Block 2 for up to 30 years.

Newcomers like Ms June Tong, who moved into the block in 2006, have much better odds of gaining employment.

Ms Tong, 64, who studied till Secondary 4, kept her receptionist job at the Law Society of Singapore despite a recent retrenchment exercise, thanks to her command of English and work record. ‘I’m just glad that I’m still employed even though I had to take a 50 per cent pay cut,’ she says.

But the pay cut came at a bad time, just after she and her husband had to sell their four-room Yishun flat to help clear their son’s business debts.

Unable to afford another home, they applied for a one-room rental flat, which costs them $33 a month and up to $70 in municipal bills. The rest of Mrs Tong’s income, about $1,000 a month, goes towards the couple’s medical expenses.

Meanwhile, Ms Jean Teo (not her real name), 28, moved in with her eight- year-old daughter in 2006, after ending her marriage and leaving her ex-husband’s four-room flat in Jurong West.

The well-spoken and stylish events planner looks every inch the successful executive, a far cry from the average grey-haired resident of Block 2.

But although she may not look the part, her monthly income of $1,300 and legal custody of her child – which means she has a ‘proper family nucleus’ – qualifies her to rent a flat.

CLOSED DOORS, SMELLY LIFTS

FOR newcomers like her, deteriorating family ties – due to divorce, abandonment or strained relationships – are the push factor towards rental housing.

But the move is far more than swapping a large living space for a smaller one. The cultural and social dislocations can be traumatic.

House-proud newcomers bristle at what they see as a blatant disregard for the environment among older residents.

The ground floor of Block 2 piles up with rubbish every day as older residents simply bundle up trash and hurl it out the windows.

Metal cans, glass bottles and the odd chair rain down on the uncovered concrete walkway outside provision shops on the ground level, such that shopkeepers have resorted to hoisting tarpaulins to shelter their goods.

There are also complaints of people urinating and defecating in the lifts although such incidents have been fewer since upgrading works recently began.

‘I was just walking out of the block when a packet of curry rice dropped onto me,’ recalls 43-year-old Madam Kusnah Abdullah, a food stall helper, who downgraded from a five-room flat in Sengkang three years ago.

The curry rice was an unwelcome accessory to the new baju kurung she had bought specially for Hari Raya.

‘There is no point in hanging my washing outside since it will be stained by those living upstairs,’ grumbles Madam Kusnah, who lives on the third floor. She now hangs her laundry on a rack indoors.

Newer residents like her blame the elderly tenants, accusing them of having no consideration for their surroundings.

Former cabby C.H. Yap, 60, who moved in last year with his wife after downgrading from a Sengkang executive flat, says residents blatantly litter in lift lobbies.

‘People here do not care,’ says the part-time martial arts instructor, who moved to Jalan Kukoh after his savings were wiped out in 2006 by heavy losses in the stock market.

‘I have to speak to them nicely, convince them to throw their rubbish properly and even thank them.

‘I tried complaining to the town council about the rubbish and inconsiderate actions since I moved in. But it still happens,’ he says with a sigh.

The Jalan Besar Town Council has posted notices throughout the block, warning residents to stop dumping rubbish out of the window, but to little avail.

The littering mirrors a deeper malaise and a lack of community spirit that often thrives at owner-occupied HDB estates.

‘It’s like a dead town,’ complains Mr Mohammad Amin, 57, a security officer, who downgraded from a four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang after divorcing his wife and selling the flat.

Community spirit in rental estates rarely gets a foothold because of the high turnover rate of residents. Many newcomers see rental housing as a transition phase and cannot be bothered to interact with their neighbours.

They also point to the drunks, drug abusers and loan sharks who occasionally lurk in the stairwells. To avoid trouble, many residents just padlock their doors. Even on weekends, when most are home, the corridors of Block 2 are unnervingly silent.

Mr Pang Chai Kang, 41, says he witnessed his first drug raid the very first month he moved in. Until February, the odd-job labourer used to live in a cramped two-room 484 sq ft flat in Marine Terrace with his mother.

So he had no qualms about moving with his new Thai wife into the marginally-smaller 355 sq ft flat at Jalan Kukoh, their temporary matrimonial home until they save up enough to buy their own flat.

But unlike in Marine Terrace, Mr Pang noticed that residents in his new block keep to themselves and hardly speak to one another. Even an exchange of greetings is done silently, with a wave or nod of the head.

It is unsettling but hardly surprising.

A 2003 HDB study on public housing study showed that one-room flat residents know the least number of neighbours, compared with residents of other unit types.

Madam Siti Rashidah, 33, who is unemployed and moved in in 2006, says: ‘I’m just so disappointed in the people living here.’

In March, when her depressive husband beat up her father, no one on her floor bothered to help, even though she screamed for assistance. In the end, she called the police who helped to break up the fight.

‘Some residents keep their doors locked shut to avoid any contact with strangers,’ says a police spokesman.

The police now pay regular visits to the estate and educate residents on crime prevention measures.

But most residents figure their best protection is reclusiveness.

When he works the night shift as a security officer, Mr Amin sends his 17-year-old daughter Nuratika to stay at his friend’s house.

‘It’s too quiet here. If something happens to my daughter, no one will know,’ says the single father.

Ms Masriani Akab, 31, a condominium cleaner, has seen many drug users and illegal cigarette peddlers hovering around the void deck since she moved into Block 2 in 2006.

‘I was very scared when police raided the flat opposite mine because the people inside were selling duty-unpaid cigarettes. I often see glue sniffers at the staircases,’ she says.

She now makes sure her 58-year-old mother stays at a relative’s home while she is at work during the day, something that had never crossed her mind before when they lived with her brother in his four-room flat at Old Airport Road.

INCREASED POLICE PATROLS

A RETIRED police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says substance abuse has been a problem in Jalan Kukoh since the 1980s.

But increased police patrols and raids have brought the situation under control over the last decade.

Still, Ms Masriani feels unsettled.

‘For now, I just close the door to avoid any trouble,’ she says.

Another bone of contention is sub-letting, when residents illegally let out their unit or part of it to others.

Mr Ramah loathes this and has blown the whistle on one of his neighbours.

‘We pay low rent, typically between $33 and $128 per month, but these people charge their illegal tenants 10 or even 20 times more,’ he says, adding that it is unfair for tenants to profit by sub-letting the flats for up to $1,000 a month.

According to recent figures released by the HDB, flats seized for illegally sub-letting increased fivefold last year. In August last year, as many as 147 rental flats were recovered as a result of this offence, compared to 28 in 2007.

The HDB conducts routine inspections and has stepped up enforcement of its rules against sub-letting of one- and two-room flats.

Offenders are evicted at once and face a five-year ban from renting or buying HDB property.

But social workers say sub-letting is just too lucrative an opportunity to turn down for many poorer tenants, who are often approached by interested parties.

‘Many of these old folks have never earned or seen so much money before in their lives so it’s very tempting to give in,’ says Ms Mabel Wong, 43, a volunteer from the Lions Befrienders, who has been helping out in Jalan Kukoh for 16 years.

Of course, it is not just the upward mobility of the newcomers which rubs the old guard the wrong way but the real reminders of it, especially when they move in with their flashy gadgets and plush furniture from their old lives.

At first glance, Mr Ramah looks to be living it up. His small apartment is crammed with a giant plasma TV set, a designer couch, an exercise bicycle and a fish tank filled with a dozen koi.

But the modern conveniences do not reflect his current predicament, he maintains. ‘All these are from my old home. I bought them when times were good.’

He had no money to spare for new furniture after moving to Block 2 since his savings had dwindled because of his mother’s medical bills. So he has to make do with the bulky furniture from his old flat, even though there is hardly any walking space.

Yet some older residents, whose houses are bare, seem resentful. He notes a few have a disconcerting habit of staring into his flat, wordlessly, as if ‘checking out’ his stuff.

About four months ago, Mr Ramah and his mother were watching TV when a middle-aged, heavily-tattooed neighbour, who lives two doors away, strode towards his flat.

He walked up to his door, carrying what looked like a ’30cm-long knife’ concealed within a rolled-up newspaper, and challenged him to a fight.

‘It was ridiculous. Why should I give in, make him happy and fight him?’ says Mr Ramah, who immediately rang the police.

When the police arrived, the neighbour accused Mr Ramah of being a snob and ‘looking down’ on him.

In his own defence, Mr Ramah, who denies any condescending behaviour towards his neighbours, says:

‘I open my door, not to show off the interior of my home, but to improve the ventilation.’

But for the less well-off, appearances are everything.

And poorer, older residents struggle to understand how their new neighbours can be stuck with financial burdens similar to theirs.

Madam Zaimah Buntak, 43, a part-time cleaner, who moved to Block 2 some 12 years ago, gripes: ‘Some of those who moved in recently don’t look like they have money problems. Some can even afford to drive cars.’

The one-room flat has been the setting for her second marriage to another divorcee, Mr Talib Abdul Rahman, 52. They have a combined salary of $500 a month from their jobs as temporary cleaners.

Before Jalan Kukoh, they camped outdoors at Fort Canning Park for three whole years.

They consider their sparsely-furnished rental flat, which has a TV and a fridge donated by relatives, a big step up from where they came from. For them, it is as good as it gets.

‘One-room flats should be for people who have difficulties getting jobs and no money to buy other types of houses,’ she says. To many newcomers, it is just a temporary, stop-gap measure and they cannot wait to move out, she adds.

While Ms Teo has come to terms with Block 2′s harsh living conditions, she is dead set against having her eight-year-old daughter grow up in the neighbourhood.

‘I hear about stabbing cases and there are loan sharks who come regularly to splash paint on doors,’ says the concerned mother, who makes her daughter stay with a family member on weekdays.

Mr Ramah has similar getaway plans. ‘I will get back to work as soon as my mother’s condition stabilises so that I can save up to buy a bigger flat,’ he says.

But while younger tenants have time on their side, it is nearly impossible for long-term residents like unemployed Mr Andy Ong (not his real name), 58, to effect an escape.

The late-1990s downturn forced the former construction contractor to fold all three of his companies and sell his four-room flat in Bukit Merah to clear his debts.

‘Only if I get a windfall from buying 4-D, then I will definitely move out,’ he says.


ABOUT BLOCK 2, JALAN KUKOH

JUST across the road from Robertson Quay, along Havelock Road, is the mature estate of Jalan Kukoh. About 0 per cent of Singapore’s 19,700 one-room rental flats are situated here.

There are 2,073 one-room flats in the area, which falls within the Kreta Ayer division of the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency.

Rental flats, also comprising two- and three-room blocks, make up about a fifth of the total residential units in the area.

Source : Straits Times – 20 Jun 2009

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