Minister Khaw Hints At Changes To EC Scheme

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SINGAPORE: National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has said the government loses “hundreds of millions” of dollars when constructing public flats.

He made the point on Thursday night at a dialogue session on housing issues.

This comes amid calls from some quarters for land costs to be taken out from the pricing of public flats to make them more affordable.

Mr Khaw also hinted at several other changes to come, such as subsidies for executive condominiums.

During the national conversation session on housing issues, many were concerned about the affordability of home prices.

Evalyn Khoo, a mother of two, said: “I’m concerned about the home asset value. I’m also concerned about how the younger generation can actually afford a house for themselves in the future.”

Participant Philip Lee said: “I think in the past three years or so, there has been more anxiety in the market because even Singaporeans couldn’t get properties through the Build-To-Order (scheme) and they have to resort to the resale market and I think if there is sufficient supply channelled to BTO, we may see more happy Singaporeans and possibly less demand in the resale market and hopefully the prices will be within range.”

With regard to calls for price of new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats to be de-linked from land costs, Mr Khaw said it may be politically easy to say land is free because it belongs to everybody, but that is not the case.

He said the price of land is tied to acquisition costs, reclamation and the building of infrastructure around it.

Mr Khaw said: “You need to acquire a piece of land; you need to reclaim a piece of land. All those costs money to taxpayers and we are just trustees of taxpayers and those costs are to be accounted for. And even when you have got that land prepared, land is only valuable when we invest in infrastructure, roads, MRT… And all those costs billions of dollars. So to say that land cost is a pittance and therefore should be excluded from total construction costs… I myself think it is not quite an appropriate argument.”

He also revealed that the Housing and Development Board, which is the developer for public housing, is losing money for every flat it sells.

He said: “Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars of losses were incurred by the HDB and that’s why MOF (Ministry of Finance) has to give the HDB an annual grant, otherwise the HDB will be in the red. It cannot be forever in the red, because there’s no way it can make money. Because every unit that we sell, we lose money, HDB loses money. The accounting for the HDB is deficit accounting. So if you incur a S$300-million loss, there is a grant of S$300 million that covers it. That is how we operate the HDB.

“Let us not perpetuate this talk about HDB is making money out of building houses because if it was so simple, life would be straightforward, but that’s not the case.”

The HDB pays market rate for its land and construction costs. When it prices flats below market rate, it incurs a housing deficit.

A recent report said the deficit is now in the region of about S$1 billion a year, including other costs such as upgrading.

The National Development Ministry told Channel NewsAsia: “The cost of building HDB flats includes the cost of land, design, construction, financing and other project-related costs. It varies from project to project and year to year. Averaging over the past three years, the Home Ownership Programme costs HDB S$874 million per year.”

Mr Khaw added that the government has to offer more subsidies with its ramped-up flat supply.

One area where subsidies are being reviewed is that for executive condominiums (ECs), which cater to Singaporeans who can afford more than an HDB flat, but find private property out of their reach.

The current household income ceiling for executive condominiums is S$12,000.

Mr Khaw said: “There is this sense of inequity here that the lower-income group is getting lower subsidies than somebody who is earning S$12,000, so something is wrong somewhere and therefore I think we cannot carry on the EC in this current mode.”

Mr Khaw also said he is confident that he can bring down the price of new flats in non-mature estates to four times the annual median salary of a buyer – down 30 per cent from the current 5.5 times. He is wary of some “transitional problems”.

He said there needs to be “distinct differentiation” between the cheaper new flats and those built earlier.

Mr Khaw said both the MND and HDB will need to sort out this issue over the next few months.

He said: “I am fairly confident of being able to do it but some groups already anticipate transitional problems, which is what I got to sort out. If yesterday you bought (a flat) at five and half years’ salary and tomorrow HDB announces a new pricing package, which is only (priced at) four years’ salary, you are going to cry ‘blue murder’ right?

“Therefore, I think we should not be prevented from offering a new pricing model but obviously there must be a distinct differentiation between the two products to explain why one is five and a half years and the one is four years.”

The national conversation session is the second in a series of about 10 dialogue sessions on housing issues. Participants were first broken up in small groups of six and then came together in a larger group where the conversation continued. The aim is to gather feedback from Singaporeans to shape future housing policies.

The topic of affordability will be further discussed at a future Our Singapore Conversation discussion.

courtesy: ChannelNewsAsia