3-Generation Flats: Boldly Under One Roof

Singapore HDBs at night
 
When the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced, in August, that it was reintroducing multi-generational flats to the housing mix, it took some by surprise. After all, the last time this was done was some 26 years ago – in 1987. The initiative was soon cancelled due to lack of interest from the public.
 
Two and a half decades later, the government is revisiting the scheme - perhaps to see if Singaporeans cannot be encouraged to live together with their parents one more time.
 
Mr Khaw Boon Wan, the MND Minister, said in August:
 
"We really want extended families to live together for real -- not to gain, to get a bigger flat, but seriously wanting to live together because they can help support each other -- grandparents looking after grandchildren because most parents are working couples.”
 
It is a commendable social objective indeed, given how Singapore’s population is ageing, and how couples have both their parents and their own children to care for. Housing could be designed to enable the different generations to live together and care for one another.
 
The biggest setback of the new scheme, however, appears to be the physical size of the flats themselves. At 115sqm, it is only a shade bigger than the present 5-room flats which are at about 110sqm, although some 5-rooms are in fact 115sqm as well, as in this example from the HDB website:
 
Singapore HDBs
 
The new 3-G flats will have 4 bedrooms and 3 toilets, unlike the 3 bedrooms and 2 toilets of the 5-room flat depicted in the above representation.
 
When Mr Lee (not his real name) heard about the new 3-G flats being announced on the radio, he was quite excited. “I thought this is quite a good idea,” he said. “I have children and my mom also stays with me. So it would be good to have more space, especially as the kids are growing up, and I can also take care of my mom as she becomes older too.”
 
However, his enthusiasm was quickly extinguished when he learned that the size of the flats would be only 115sqm. 
 
“It’s about the same size as my current 5-room flat,” he says. His 5-room is 110sqm. "I can’t see how they can fit in effectively 10 rooms – a kitchen, 4 bedrooms, a living hall, 3 toilets and a bomb shelter - within that small area,” he says. “It doesn’t look very attractive.”
 
Ms Lim Wan Keng echoed Mr Lee’s sentiments in a letter to the Straits Times on 31 August. She wrote:
 
“To make the new multi-generational flats a viable option for those with larger families, it is important that the HDB ensures the flats are of an adequate size."
 
“This will improve the quality of life for the families that choose these flats, instead of leaving them to live cheek by jowl in cramped quarters.”
 
The good news is that only 80 of these flats will be piloted in Yishun in the initial period. So, there is room for improvements if things go well.
 
Singapore HDBs
 
Nonetheless, before the scheme dies from a lack of enthusiasm, perhaps there are some things which could be done even for the pilot programme? Here are a few ideas.
 
Make it affordable – really!
 
The prices for these 3-G flats have yet to be announced. Affordability being the cornerstone principle of HDB policies, it is important that the HDB adhere to the same principle which it expects buyers of 3-G flats to adhere to: “not for gain”, to paraphrase Mr Khaw. So, it would be good if these flats could be sold at cost to make it a truly viable option for those with 3-generational families. Imagine having to pay mortgage loans, care for your aged parents and your growing toddlers all at the same time, and in an environment where the cost of living keeps increasing! It is quite a burden indeed.
 
Make it bigger! Size does matter!
 
115sqm for 3 generation of family members to live together just do not cut it. It just doesn’t make sense to fit 10 rooms into a small area. What HDB should be going for instead is to be generous and make the flats bigger, much bigger. 150sqm would be ideal. Anything bigger would be a dream. HDB in fact should be bold, a lot more bold. One might even envision an entire floor reserved for perhaps just 5 to 7 of such 3-G flats, compared to the current 10 or so number of flats per floor. The point is to make multi-generational living in close proximity a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Go big on space! 
 
Improve surrounding estate!
 
Going beyond the confines of the flats themselves, there is also a need to better integrate the facilities in the estate, especially in the immediate neighbourhoods of these flats. Already, the HDB has done quite a bit in this respect. But more can be done. For example, such flats should be located nearer to nature parks, to allow families to engage in outdoor activities together. 
 
A social cause, ultimately
 
As Mr Khaw said, housing has a social objective. With our declining birth rate, an ageing population (by 2030, there will be about 800,000 Singaporeans 65-years old and above), and younger Singaporeans having to carry a heavier economic burden, family is the one thing which will provide that support in these times for us.
 
It is also not possible for Singapore to have nursing homes built all over the island to cater to the aged in the coming years. How many such homes will we need to build? It is thus important that we seriously relook the way we plan our housing estates, and the flats themselves, and see if we cannot improve on them.
 
If family is a national priority (as the government has affirmed often), then let us do all we can to help encourage this. And there is no better place to start, and no better affirmation of this, than to help families have a home where they are comfortable and safe in. 
 
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