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Home worries surface as lease expiry looms

23 May, 2017

From the age of 13, Madam P.C. Koh has lived at her terraced house in Geylang Lorong 3.

Now 70, she is facing the prospect of being homeless in less than three years' time.

That is when the 60-year lease of her property runs out. Come 2020, it will be returned to the state and its value will plummet to zero.

She said in disbelief: "My home is still standing. I don't understand how it can be worth nothing. Will I still have a home to live in?"

The short answer is no. In a statement, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) reiterates the Government's stance: Its general policy is to recover land upon lease expiry.

The reality of an expiring lease is slowly seeping in for an estimated 30 households - out of 190 private landed homes - still living in the Geylang Lorong 3 estate.

This is especially after National Development Minister Lawrence Wong's recent cautionary note on buying older leasehold properties.

Although directed at owners of Housing Board flats, Mr Wong's comment was a stark reminder that all leasehold properties, whether public or private, will eventually go back to the state upon lease expiry.

Besides Geylang Lorong 3, there are at least three other private residential estates with fewer than 40 years left on the lease, The Sunday Times understands.

Unlike the case of HDB flats, private property owners can collectively sell adjoining units to another developer before the lease is up. But that ship has sailed for Geylang Lorong 3, given how short its remaining lease is.

One resident, Mr Lim Kah Chin, 68, a retired delivery driver, said the estate used to have an association of residents. But its chairman moved out eight years ago when prices were still relatively high. This left the remaining residents - mostly retirees who are not financially savvy - leaderless, he added.

"Those who wanted to leave have already sold and moved on. Some died, some went to live with their children, and now it is just the few of us left," said Mr Lim.

Like many other residents who spoke to The Sunday Times, he hopes the authorities can find them an alternative housing solution.

However, analysts said they have little choice but to wait for the Government's decision. The owners will probably not get any compensation for their homes. Any bonus will depend on the goodwill of the Government.

The SLA spokesman did not respond to a question about rehousing options, but said: "Each plot of land is assessed carefully, taking into consideration the planning intention and Singapore's socio-economic needs before decisions are taken on the relevant land leases."

The Government might consider options for the older residents there, as many who have lived there since the estate was built in 1960 are not necessarily well-to-do. The houses were built by the Government as replacement homes when the residents' kampung burned down in a fire.

Meanwhile, at Jalan Chempaka Kuning in Bedok, a 70-year leasehold property with 17 years left, residents have been asking the land's trustee to extend the lease at each annual general meeting. Said Mr Akbar Ali, 49: "We don't mind paying a reasonable amount to live here longer because we like this estate."

A lease extension would delay the agony that the Geylang Lorong 3 residents are now going through, said Mr Akbar, who is in the publishing business and moved in six years ago. "When the lease eventually runs out, we have to be prepared that the money we spent is gone and that we have somewhere else to live."

As for Mr Lim, he now regrets not selling his unit around 10 years ago, when a unit was sold for around $200,000. He paid $35,000 for the two-storey terraced house in 1987. "I stayed on as I needed a roof over my head. This place was also where I met my wife, so I couldn't bear to move," he said.

Whatever sentimental reason he had for staying faded with the expiring lease. Neighbours who moved out were replaced by temple operators and foreign worker quarters, and the once-lively neighbourhood has lost its vibe. A rat problem has forced residents to build knee-high partitions at doorways to keep out the pests. "We will be lucky if there is any buyer at all, with only three years of lease remaining," said Mr Lim.

Adapted from: The Straits Times, 9 April 2017