20 Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim asked the Minister for National Development whether HDB has considered (i) working with utilities companies to track utilities usage during the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP), as an indicator of non-occupancy, in addition to the current reliance on sampling resale listings on property sites and (ii) requesting property sales sites to monitor and remove listings of properties that have been determined to have not fulfilled the physical occupancy requirements under the terms of the MOP.
Mr Desmond Lee: Thank you, Sir. Mr Speaker, my response will also cover the matters raised in the questions by Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Gerald Giam which are scheduled for a subsequent Sitting. I invite Members to ask clarifications, if need be. If the questions have been addressed, it may not be necessary to proceed with these Questions at future Sittings.
HDB flats are primarily meant for owner-occupation. Owners are required to physically occupy their flat during the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP), before they are allowed to sell their flat on the open market or rent out the whole flat. During the MOP, owners are not allowed to leave the flat vacant, or rent out the whole flat without staying in it – this also means that owners are not allowed to rent out their whole flat under the guise of renting out only the bedrooms, for instance, by locking up one room and not actually living in it. To be clear, this also applies to Executive Condominiums, or ECs.
All buyers of HDB flats are required to acknowledge HDB’s rules and regulations, including those relating to the MOP, at various points of their flat purchase process. Furthermore, the relevant rules and regulations are readily available on the HDB InfoWEB. Flat owners would therefore know that they are not allowed to leave their flat vacant or rent out the whole flat without staying in it, during the MOP.
The MOP policy safeguards HDB flats for households with genuine housing needs. It also helps, in part, to deter the speculative purchase of HDB flats to keep HDB flats affordable. Nevertheless, we recognised that flat owners’ circumstances may change over time. Some may aspire to own a bigger flat or private residential property as their financial situation improves or as their family size grow. While others may wish to right-size or to move closer to their parents or children for mutual care and support. In short, life stages change. The current five-year MOP seeks to strike a balance: on the one hand reinforcing the objective of owner occupation, while on the other hand not unduly hampering those who want to move when their family circumstances or life needs change.
Flat owners who face genuine circumstances and cannot stay in their HDB flat during the MOP, such as those who may be posted overseas for work for a period, should write in to HDB to seek waiver of the MOP rule. HDB will assess such appeals on a case-by-case basis.
Where appropriate, we have made the MOP longer to strengthen the owner-occupation intent of our public housing. For instance, the MOP for flats launched under the Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) model is set at 10 years. And rental flat tenants who get additional support under the Fresh Start Housing Scheme to buy a new HDB flat have to meet a 20-year MOP.
During Our Housing Conversations held under the auspices of ForwardSG, we had received a whole range of suggestions to strengthen the owner-occupation intent of public housing. For instance, some suggested increasing the MOP for all flat types while others responded to say that five years, is just about right, given how life stages change. Other participants suggested carving out popular BTO projects, such as those in well sought-after locations or in areas with very favourable attributes, such as close proximity to amenities and imposing tighter HDB ownership conditions – such as longer MOP – to further deter speculative intent. And yet, there are other participants who suggested tiered MOPs – for applicants at the same income level, those who accept longer MOPs can get more subsidies and those with shorter MOPs get much lesser subsidy and pay for BTO flats closer to market price.
These are just a sampling of the ideas given, we are studying the very many views carefully and will continue to review our housing policies to meet the needs of Singaporeans.
Owners who are unable to fulfil their MOP due to changes in their circumstances will need to return their flat to HDB. Between January 2017 and December 2022, a total of 258 BTO flats and 168 resale flats have been returned to HDB, mostly due to changes in owners’ circumstances within the MOP, which rendered them ineligible to own an HDB flat. Circumstances include divorce or separation, demise of an owner, medical reasons and so on. As these owners had not fulfilled their MOP, they were not allowed to sell their flat on the open market. But of course, appeals can be made and cases will be looked at case-by-case.
HDB detects potential infringement of HDB rules and regulations through a range of methods, including regular inspection of HDB units, feedback from members of public and property agents, as well as the use of data analytics and other tools. Members of this House have also given a whole list of suggestions and I thank them for that. Some of these involve confidential investigative methods and I shall not go into the details.
Sir, in detecting and investigating infringements, HDB tries to strike a balance – on the one hand, we want to ensure that HDB rules are complied with by detecting and deterring errant owners who infringe these rules; on the other hand, we do not want to overly impinge upon the privacy of the 1.1 million HDB homeowners, the vast majority of whom abide by the rules.
On regular inspections, HDB conducts 500 inspections randomly each month to detect infringements of HDB rules and regulations, such as unauthorised renting out or subletting and non-occupation of flat. Since 2017, HDB has inspected some 35,000 homes to conduct random checks.
HDB also investigates feedback received from members of public and property agents on suspected cases of HDB rule infringements, such as flats being listed for resale in bare or so called “brand new” condition. Between 2017 and 2022, HDB received around 4,700 pieces of feedback on potential infringement relating to HDB’s MOP rules.
In addition, as part of the HDB resale process, HDB also conducts inspection on all HDB flats involved in a resale transaction. Flats that have been found to be in bare or “brand new” condition will be flagged for further checks.
HDB receives information about suspected cases of infringement across all flat types – one Member asked if there was any particular flat type with a greater propensity, in fact, it is across all. Should any infringement be established, action will be taken, and the resale transaction will not be allowed to proceed.
HDB takes the violation of its rules and regulations seriously and will not hesitate to take enforcement action against errant owners. Depending on the severity of the infringement, HDB may issue a written warning, impose a financial penalty of up to $50,000, or compulsorily acquire the flat. From January 2017 to November 2022, HDB had taken action against 53 owners who had not occupied their flats. Of these 53, 21 have had their flats compulsorily acquired due to MOP infringement. Owners whose flats are compulsorily acquired by HDB in this manner will also face other consequences. For instance, they will be debarred from purchasing subsidised flats in future or taking over such flats by way of change in ownership, among others.
Property agents who perform estate agency work, too, have a role to play in helping to ensure that HDB’s rules and regulations are not breached. Property agents are required to comply with the Estate Agents Act and its Regulations, including the Code of Ethics and Professional Client Care (CEPCC). Under the Code, property agents need to perform due diligence in the course of carrying out estate agency work to ensure that no law, including those that apply to HDB properties, has been infringed.
If a property agent has reasonable cause to suspect that HDB MOP rules have been infringed, he should inform his client of the potential consequences and stop marketing the client’s property. The Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) has taken disciplinary action against agents who have been found to have breached CEA’s regulations in assisting such owners to sell or rent out their flats.
Between 2017 and 2022, CEA investigated 51 cases involving 69 property agents who had assisted their clients to market HDB flats which might not have met MOP rules. Investigations into 32 cases have been completed and CEA took disciplinary action against 18 property agents who were found to have breached the Code. Six agents have had their registration suspended for between seven and 48 weeks and received financial penalties ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 imposed by CEA’s disciplinary committee. Two property agents were issued Letters of Censure (LOC), one of whom was also imposed with a financial penalty of $1,000. The remaining 10 agents were issued with warning letters for their disciplinary breaches. The remaining 19 cases are still under investigation.
HDB and CEA will continue to work closely to investigate cases involving HDB owners who sell or rent out their flats during MOP and CEA will continue to review the adequacy of the actions taken against errant agents.
We thank Members who have provided suggestions on how to better detect and deter errant owners. We also recognised the concern by members of public, sometimes anger, when they see such actions being taken by people around them, when they and many other HDB owners comply fully with the rules and are concerns about whether the playing field is level. They see public housing as, first, a home, while recognising that people do have changes in life course and also do want to upgrade as their circumstances and financial situations improves, and have therefore, been forthcoming in giving us information when they come across suspected breaches of rules. HDB will investigate such cases and continue to take firm action against infringement of HDB rules and regulations. Members of the public can continue to report cases to HDB via the toll-free hotline at 1800-555-6370, or via email.
Mr Speaker: Assoc Prof Jamus Lim.
Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): Mr Speaker, I appreciate that Minister Lee had a great many Parliamentary Questions (PQs) to follow up, but I do not quite think that my specific ones were answered. Just to reiterate, it was about technological solutions, whether HDB explored some of these, in particular, whether they would track utilities usage or if they would request property sale sites to monitor and subsequently remove errant listings. The general point is whether there are automated mechanisms to flag some of these before subsequent investigations into potential violations are made.
Mr Desmond Lee: I thank the Member and I thank him for his patience because it was a long reply. The response to the questions are in paragraphs 9 and 20. In essence, we have said that HDB detects potential infringements of HDB rules and regulations through a wide range of methods, including regular inspections, random and otherwise; feedback from members of the public and property agents; as well as the use of data analytics and other tools. And because some of these involve confidential investigative methods, we would not go into the details.
At paragraph 20, I did thank Members for the whole range of ideas given. Some suggested looking at whether people change their NRIC after buying this home, some suggested looking at utility meters, some suggested looking at season parking, renovation permits – a whole sort of proposals raised. I have said that we adopt the whole range of measures but we also want to strike a balance, make sure the rules are enforced – not just enforcement but detection in the first place – at the same time, making sure we do not overly impinge upon the privacy of 1.1 million home owners, the majority of whom actually play by the rules.
Ministry of National Development
9 January 2023