Singapore’s move to bolster rules preventing same-sex marriages could be a serious blow to the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in one of the city-state’s most important wealth and lifestyle areas: housing.
Around 80% Singaporeans are sheltered in public, state-subsidized housing. This is their most valuable asset. Young married couples are granted grants up to S$80,000 (57,000) for access to flats. LGBTQ applicants — categorized as single buyers — can only enter the market when they turn 35, with a limited pool of smaller apartments to choose from and lower government subsidies.
“At a time when my peers were settling down and building homes, it was very clear that was out of reach for me,” said Adrianna Tan, a 36-year-old Singaporean professional now living in San Francisco with her wife. “There’s the assumption that queer Singaporeans will simply rent or buy private property, because there’s the perception that we are rich.”
In a speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government would repeal Section 377A of the penal code that criminalizes sex between men, but would also amend the Constitution to protect the legal definition of marriage — a union between a man and a woman — from being challenged in the courts.
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Although the move was viewed as an agreement between LGBTQ-rights activists and conservative members of Singaporean society it disappointed people who had hoped for more since Section 377A went unenforced for many years.
As rental and private property prices continue to rise, it could be even more difficult for LGBTQ residents to access affordable housing by the Housing and Development Board.
Lee said many national policies rely upon Singapore’s legal definition of marriage, including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification. The government has “no intention” of changing the definition of marriage or the policies based on it, he said on Sunday.
“Even though the government repealed Section 377A, it still upholds family-centric policies,” said Tien Foo Sing, a real estate professor at the National University of Singapore.
Singapore is one of Asia’s most expensive property markets, making the availability of state-subsidized homes the only way to enter the market for most citizens.
The HDB’s Build-to-Order Program assesses applicants for ballots to be granted to new properties to citizens. This gives first-time spouses with children preference. A flat’s median wait time is four to five years.
The Housing & Development Board (HDB) estate in the Toa Payoh district of Singapore, seen on Friday, April 5, 2019.
Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Around 31% of Singapore’s population above the age of 15 were classified as single in 2021, government data show. The city-state does not have any official statistics on the LGBTQ population.
With the government offering parenthood incentives to address the nation’s falling birth rate and housing stock closely aligned with population planning, it’s unlikely to relax restrictions for single buyers.
Nearly all HDB flats come with a 99 year lease. Buyers cannot resell the property for more than five years. In the most desirable neighborhoods, larger HDB flats can be resold for over S$1,000,000.
Listings on 99.co.uk show that private condominiums with two bedrooms in the center of Singapore are priced at around S$2.5million. The Ministry of Manpower reports that Singaporeans have a median income of S$4,680 per month.
“The option of private housing is a luxury for most,” said William Tan, a realtor who specializes in serving LGBTQ clients. “Only those with at least a S$6,000 monthly income can even consider buying a condo and not many people under 35 are there yet.”
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Singaporean Andee Chacha, 32, bought his private condominium in a one bedroom after he had rented for several years with his partner. “The down-payment was difficult. I used up almost all my savings and my parents had to step in to help.”
His apartment cost was similar to that of the 5-room HDB unit his sister (a mother of two) had purchased. Chua plans to sell his condo in order to buy a bigger HDB flat once he turns 35.
Tan stated that few LGBTQ couples are interested in BTO flats due to the limited number of units available and long waiting times.
“You will be 40 when you get your home and 45 if you want to sell it after the minimum occupancy period,” Tan said. “Profits from the sale will not be enough to upgrade to something more substantial.”
According to him, married couples can usually resell more costly HDB flats in their 30s for a nice profit.
“It’s still hard for us to own a home, and getting harder,” said Adrianna Tan, the San Francisco resident who relocated to the US in 2018. “Our housing market is hot, and the barriers to entry are high simply because we are not heterosexual or married.”
—Assistance from Yuko Takeo, Low De Wei and Lily Nonomiya
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