An opinion piece by Chia Yan Min in the Straits Times on Tuesday, November 12, 2014 (As old buildings age, rethink rules on en bloc sales) muses that new rules are needed to force easier sales of aging properties.
I have written before about the slippery slope created by allowing private property rights to be tampered with by the State (eminent domain) or by rules (en bloc sales). There must be a very limited and extraordinary case for abrogating a person's property rights. Commercial considerations and aesthetics do not pass that test.
The argument made in the editorial is that the benefits of urban renewal must be balanced against the "interests" of owners of older buildings. The evidence is that a number of buildings have been allowed to decay due to lack of maintenance, and therefore present an affront to the writer.
One has to ask why buildings are falling apart so quickly. Are they being built poorly? Are they designed poorly? Are they designed intentionally to have a short life? Cities elsewhere in the world seem to be able to sustain their building stock over much longer periods than in Singapore. It seems to be our culture that "replace" is preferred to "repair".
There are a couple of contributing factors to the perceived problem of aging buildings. The good news is that they are all curable with building and governance standards, without the need to interfere with property rights.
Maintenance - Anyone living in a mature Singapore condo knows that there are those on the condo boards that block any and all spending resolutions. Motivations for this behaviour are varied - some people are just cheap, some genuinely are unable to afford higher monthly fees, some are absentee investors who have no stake in the building and look forward to realizing a profit when the land is sold.
The cure for this problem lies in establishing a governance structure for strata-titled properties that requires condo associations to maintain their premises, obtain engineering reports on the building and plant in order to plan financially for replacement and then fund their capital account appropirately. Above all, maintenance cannot be optional.
This is not theory. The Province of British Columbia in Canada has excellent legislation in this regard, and none of the derelict building problems that Singapore seems to have. (Strata Propery Act)
Design - I lost my home of 9 years when Ardmore Point went en bloc. The building that has risen to replace it has basically the same number of units, but now being sold at a multiple of 4 times more than the sellers received. Nobody who lived in the original building could afford to buy one of the new units.
This was not a case of an old building needing to be torn down. This was a reinforced concrete bunker that would have lasted forever with maintenance and updating. The condo owners were offered a financial incentive, and as most were non-resident, they took it. A great building was destroyed for no particular reason other than to allow re-pricing of the land by the buyer. In the process, families living in the neighbourhood were displaced, and the new building is mostly unsold and empty. It may look prettier, but it has failed as a place to house actual humans.
The new buildings that we are seeing now as replacements of for all those structures destroyed in the last great en bloc wave are pre-fab concrete structures with curtain wall envelopes. Hardly the stuff of millennia. One has to ask whether the planners at the URA prefer disposable buildings so that they can rearrange Singapore more conveniently when the mood strikes.
Again, legislation and building standards are the solution to rapidly decaying structures. There is no engineering reason to have this outcome, it is a function of design and maintenance.
We don't need to change en bloc rules to allow people to be forced out of their homes more easily, we need rules to allow owners to run and maintain their buildings properly.