In a recent parliament speech, Minister Mah spoke again about HDB flats being 'affordable'. To support his assertion he gave a few examples to illustrate what affordable means:
"In the case of new HDB flats in non-mature estates, the average mortgage payment for new flats in non-mature estates sold in 2009 was 22% of monthly household income, which translates to a DSR of 22%. This is 1-2% marginally higher than the level seen in the last decade, but well within the affordability benchmark of 30-35%. This also means that about 80% of Singaporean new flat buyers are able to service their housing loans entirely from CPF without any cash payment. In my opinion, this is a significant fact and a very real measure of affordability" - Minister Mah's Speech in Parliament 5 March 2010[Link].
Do go through the other examples in his speech to fully understand what he means by affordability. He is basically saying if you can service your 30 yr mortgage loan today, things are okay...the HDB has done its job well and there are no real issues here. You noticed he used 'average' mortgage payment ...hmm so what happens to the 500,000 families who are below average? What happens to the bottom 20-30% where income has fallen off steeply due to the income gap? Public housing is for everyone right? Not just the average and above average families. His choice of using the average to demonstrate affordability is just a small spin ....I'll show you why this whole affordability argument from Minister Mah is bogus. Our public housing is the most expensive in the world and it causes Singaporean households to be deep in debt putting them at risk - 8% of HDB loans were in default in late 2008 even before the recession started[Link:HDB Mortgage Defaults Up 33,000 in October]. The need to service a debt over 3 decades make Singaporean households financially vulnerable - but there is something that make such loans even more dangerous......
How did people buy homes in the past anyway? My grandfather his home by leasing a piece of land from a landlord and he paid a house builder to build the attap house. I lived in it for 15 years - my grandpa was a baker, he had 6 children and never spent one day in debt. My father bought his HDB 4 room HDB flat in the early 80s. Those days HDB build 4 room flats the size of an $800K-$900K condo today. My dad paid of his housing debt in 7 years. His CPF was intact because they did not allow CPF to be used for housing in those days. Some time in the later half of the 1980s the CPF was liberalised for use in housing and this was what happened:
The surge in property prices was caused by the CPF liberalisation (according to this research paper[Link]. The housing loans to GNP ratio went up from 0.1 in 1980 to a whopping 0.49 in 1997 [Link]- a 500% jump! So CPF was emptied for purpose of buying homes and households became highly indebted - now housing becomes intertwined with retirement.
...Some of you may be asking what is wrong with debt anyway? You have a steady job, you make more than enough to cover your monthly instalments ...so what is the big deal about borrowing $300K to buy a flat or $500K to buy a condo if you're making $5-8K a month...30 yrs later you will be off the hook and along the way there is a good chance you can off-load to some other person for a profit of $100-200K if the timing is right. What is the problem...everyone else is doing it anyway....besides job loss, falling prices, illness, etc, there is something sinister I find most young people don't take into account when they take up, say, a $500K loan - its seems so routine these days given the high cost of housing....let me tell you a story...
Late 1998 during the Asian crisis, prices for property fell and I was persuaded to buy one. After I selected my property and booked it, I went around to shop for a loan. I found a bank advertising an 'unbelievably low rate of interest'. The offer was so good, the bank kept its doors opened on Saturday to deal with surge in loan applications. I went to the bank very early but found a long queue of people ahead of me. I waited for 5 hours before my turn. When the officer saw me, she said, "Mister, this type of good deal for housing loan you will probably never see again in your lifetime". So what was this good deal? The bank was offering an interest rate of 5.25% for housing loans - the lowest in recent years. Many people today taking up housing loans forget that the 3-4% housing loan interest we see now is artificially low and not the norm if you look at interest rates in the past 3 decades. During the Asian crisis, housing loan interest rates went up to 8% i.e. if you have a housing loan of $500K you will be paying $40K a year or $3.3K a month on interest along without reduction in principal. One of my friend paid close to $200K in total instalments to service a $700K housing loan in 1996-1998 only to see the principal fall by $50K as interest ranged from 5.5-8% during that period.
Talking a 30 year loan is not a trivial thing - during the 30 years, many things can happen include the high likelihood of interest rates going up, job loss, illness, etc and Minister Mah is incorrect to say it is affordable and okay for people to take up these loans when we were already seeing a default rate of 8% in 2008 when the interest rate and job environment was relatively benign. Debt = risk and a public housing program that requires buyers to take up 30 yr mortgages to stretch their loan so they can afford the month instalments puts the ordinary people at risk while it maximises the govt revenue by putting heavy burdens on Singaporean households.