Single and stigmatised

Many unmarried mothers face difficulties finding affordable housing because they and their children are not recognised as a family nucleus.

In Singapore, unmarried mothers have very limited options compared to traditional family units when it comes to buying public housing. We shine the spotlight on the challenges they face and what help they can get.

By Romesh Navaratnarajah

During a recent parliamentary session, several housing issues were raised, including the high number of appeals from young unmarried parents looking to purchase or rent flats from the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

The Ministry of National Development (MND), which oversees the HDB, said that in the past three years, it received 100 requests from unmarried parents below the age of 35 to buy a flat with their children, and another 300 appeals for rental flats.

“For both types of appeals, (the) HDB approved about one-fifth of the cases. The remainder could continue living with their parents, could afford other housing options or were already co-owners of a flat,” said the ministry.

Families first

According to Eugene Lim, Key Executive Officer of ERA Realty Network, the government still encourages the formation of a family nucleus and hence, that is usually the prerequisite for an HDB flat.

In the case of unmarried mothers, he noted that they currently do not fall under most of the HDB eligibility schemes when it comes to buying or renting a flat.

“The only scheme they can apply under is the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme, and applicants have to be over the age of 35 to be eligible,” he said. For those younger than 35, the HDB reviews their appeals on a case-by-case basis.

A tight situation

30-year-old Ms Lim, an unmarried mother, was one of the lucky few to get the HDB’s approval to buy a three-room resale flat two years ago.

She and her two-year-old son were previously staying with her parents and siblings in a five-room flat, but the tight living conditions resulted in frequent quarrels with family members.

Speaking to PropertyGuru, she recounted her difficulties in buying a house, with the entire process taking several months. This included a phone call from an HDB officer asking her about her employment status and finances. She also had to provide several documents, including one to prove she was not living with her son’s father, as well as a report from a social worker to determine her mental state.

According to Ms Lim, it took the HDB about two months to review her case before it was approved. This came as a surprise to many of her friends who felt her chances were slim. “I was told that my son and I were lucky to have our appeal approved at the first attempt,” she said.

However, several conditions had to be met beforehand. Since she could not take out an HDB loan, she had to resort to getting a bank loan, which meant putting down a five percent cash deposit for the flat. She also forked out about $10,000 to renovate the house and buy furniture and other household items, which put a strain on her finances.

Unfair policies

Advocacy groups here feel it is unfair that more housing options and subsidies are offered to traditional family units, with less support for single parents, especially unmarried mothers.

Corinna Lim, Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), said while the issue has been raised in Parliament on numerous occasions, the MND’s response is that it takes a “case-by-case approach and applies flexibility”.

“This current approach is inadequate and creates additional challenges for single parents. In many cases, it still leaves the housing needs of many single parents unmet,” she said.

Under one roof

While their options are currently limited, Eugene feels that unmarried mothers can choose not to live alone, and instead stay with their parents. There are several advantages to doing so.

“For instance, their parents can help to look after the child while the mother is at work. Also, they might choose to live with their parents due to cost constraints. Having to raise a child with only one working person can be quite tough financially,” he said.

But Corinna does not think this is the best solution because there may not be enough space for the child, and in some cases, there can also be friction and judgement from family members. “The situation can be further aggravated in cases where there is a history of family violence,” she said.

 

Pregnant Woman

Around 800 to 1,000 children were born to unmarried mothers each year between 2006 to 2015.

 

A single love

AWARE has been consistently keeping the issue of equality for single parents in the public eye through various initiatives, including its high-profile #asinglelove campaign as well as a recently released report on single parents’ access to public housing.

There were around 800 to 1,000 children born to unmarried mothers each year between 2006 to 2015, said Corinna. “The rise in single-parent households makes their access to public housing an area of growing concern.”

She said that in such cases, they are only eligible for subsidies on two-room flats in non-mature estates, which may not be suitable for their family’s needs.

Unmarried mothers are also unable to form a family nucleus with their children to purchase a flat, as their children are labelled as “illegitimate” under the law, she noted.

“This label stigmatises the children in an overt way, and sends the message that they are somehow less worthy.”

Social prejudice

Corinna feels that decision makers here may feel constrained because some members of society hold prejudices. Despite this, the Singapore government is beginning to take the concerns of unmarried mothers seriously.

In April last year, Minister Tan Chuan Jin announced that the government would extend the full 16-weeks maternity leave to unmarried mothers, and open a Child Development Account for their children.

“We applaud these moves which show the government responding more to families’ needs and calls for equality. However, many policies remain discriminatory and difficulties remain for these families,” she said.

She believes the government can do more for single parents. Some of the group’s recommendations include lifting the debarment rule for those with children under their care, and recognising unmarried mothers and their children as a family nucleus for the purposes of housing application.

“The government can and should demonstrate leadership by setting the tone for more acceptance,” said Corinna.

Self-reliance is key

Responding to our queries, a HDB spokesperson said that its housing policies aim to address the needs of Singaporean households, without undermining self-reliance and family support.

“We recognise the difficult circumstances facing single parent households,” said the spokesperson, adding that it helps those with no other housing options by allocating them a rental flat under the Public Rental Scheme.

However, the scheme has its limitations. According to the HDB’s website, the number of public rental flats is limited and certain eligibility requirements must be met.

For instance, single parents looking for a rental flat must be at least 35-years-old and their total household gross income cannot exceed $1,500 per month. They must also jointly rent the flat with another single. PropertyGuru understands that if they cannot find another occupant, then the HDB will match them with someone.

Meanwhile, for those in urgent need of assistance, they can turn to AWARE’s legal clinic, support groups, counselling or Helpline services. They can also approach the relevant family service centres for help.

More details on the programmes and services offered by AWARE can be viewed at the website, asinglelove.sg.

 

Eligibility criteria for unmarried mothers looking to buy or rent HDB flats

 

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