The multi-pronged approach that the Government outlined this past week to resolve issues regarding the dwindling leases of HDB flats has by and large been well received by Singaporeans.
The new announcements by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally (NDR) could not have been more timely. Concerns over depleting leases have plagued the HDB resale market, with demand for ageing flats with leases of less than 60 years almost grounding to a halt. In some cases, home owners have had to reduce prices significantly before securing viewings.
In fact, over the last five years, the price gap between HDB resale flats and private properties has widened.
Based on the Housing Development Board (HDB) Resale Index and the Urban Redevelopment Authority Private Property Index, the gap between the two stands at 13.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2018.
This is much higher than the average gap of 5.4 per cent in the last five years and substantially above the smallest gap of 1.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2016.
The diverging performance in private properties and HDB resale market could be in part due to the lingering concerns over the value of ageing leasehold flats.
Now that the Government has cleared the air about the fate of the HDB flats and sent an important signal that it is addressing the concerns of Singaporeans, this could well soon change.
For owners who are worried about monetising their ageing HDB flats in their twilight years, there is now the Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS) to fall back on.
Owners will have the option of cashing out when these flats reach 70 years or beyond, and use the sales proceeds to fund the next purchase, probably at a subsidised rate.
There is also interim Home Improvement Programme (HIP and HIP 2) for home owners who do not intend to sell their flats and go through the hassle of moving, with the Government upkeeping the flats to make them conducive to live in until the end of the 99-year lease.
In addition, the Government is also looking into ways to let buyers of shorter-lease flats use more of their Central Provident Funds (CPF) for their purchases without compromising their retirement savings.
All of these new initiatives will help prospective HDB buyers to look at the resale market differently.
Liquidity could improve as confidence is restored since there are additional and more attractive options to monetise the flats.
In short, the announcements are expected to uplift sentiments in the HDB resale market in the coming months or quarters.
With VERS and the possible relaxation of CPF usage, flat buyers could also become less sensitive to the declining HDB leases.
This could spur demand for older flats in matured estates, which tend to be centrally-located and well-served by amenities and transport networks.
Sellers of these ageing flats are now in a stronger position to hold on to their asking prices. This could help to stem price declines in the ageing flats.
But as is always the case, the devil is in the details, which could take months before they are announced.
Furthermore, the newly announced initiatives will not be implemented at least until a decade later.
They also raise some questions.
First up is the issue of funding such an ambitious redevelopment and upgrading programme. Where is the money going to come from? Is it too much for taxpayers to bear? Is the Government raising more taxes?
Second, even if the Government is able to find means to fund the projects, what could the compensation be like for VERS?
As we all know, for private en bloc process, owners set a minimum reserve price based on the highest potential the land plot could yield, along with the consideration of buying a replacement home.
To put it simply, if the outcome of en bloc does not guarantee a replacement unit, it is unlikely to take off.
In the instance of VERS, PM Lee has made it clear that the payout is likely to be less generous than the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).
This is not surprising given the shorter remaining leases of VERS flats and also because SERS flats have “high development value” through intensified land use.
So what would be the benchmark for VERS and what is considered reasonable?
The Government will probably benchmark the payout against the future potential of the sites returning to the state, meaning the compensation package will not be hefty unless the redevelopment could significantly intensify the usage of the land.
It is also not feasible for the Government to take back public housing land and tender it out as commercial or private residential parcel in the name of optimising land use, as it goes against the original intent of the HDB to provide affordable public housing to the masses.
In my view, the currently suspended Design Build Sell Scheme (DBSS) where flats are designed, built and sold by private developers could play a part.
Given the large scale of the redevelopment plans to regenerate ageing HDB towns, the Government could let private developers participate in the redevelopment process.
It could speed up the pace of regeneration as well as achieve a higher potential for public housing land.
This will in turn result in higher payout for owners who opt for VERS as the land value of these public housing sites is enhanced, while the previous residents will be moved to new estates developed by HDB.
The current DBSS will however have to be tweaked in order to make future DBSS flats more affordable for first-time home buyers.
Overall, the value proposition of HDB flats has improved with the latest announcements.
This however does not mean that HDB buyers no longer need to exercise prudence and can start paying top dollars for ageing assets. The exact payout for VERS is still unclear.
There is no need to speculate by rushing into the market now.
The best way to ensure that all flat owners are not negatively impacted by ageing leases is to encourage them not to worry about leaving a bequest for their offspring.
As PM Lee said, 99 years is a long time. It will definitely be able to last one to two generations.
Every Singaporean from each generation should have his or her fair chance of enjoying the fruits of the country’s growth and prosperity by purchasing his or her own HDB flat, given that affordable public housing is likely to remain a long-term government policy priority.
By Christine Li – director and head of research at property consultancy Cushman & Wakefield Singapore.