Home, truly after 8 years: A divorced mother’s quest for security

SINGAPORE: She was threatened at knifepoint in her own flat by her husband, after a quarrel that escalated. Even police intervention could not guarantee her safety if she remained.

Madam Tamilvaannii already had obtained a Personal Protection Order against her abusive husband – it allowed the couple to live in the same home but separate rooms. Still, officers responding to her call advised her to leave for her own good.

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“What if he stabs me to death after the police leave?” she thought to herself.

So in the middle of the night, she and her 18-year-old daughter Vinothinnii found themselves on the streets.

That was when Mdm Vaannii saw the true value of being a homeowner in a new light: It wasn’t just a roof over her head, or a place to decorate as she liked.

It was about having a haven where nobody could turf her or her children out. Said the 46-year-old: 

I felt the pain of (having to leave). I saw that I must have my own home.

But it was to take eight years of anxiety as a single mother, and the unexpected boon of a second chance, before she found that security for her children, with assistance from the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

SO NEAR, YET SO FAR

The night she was chased out, Mdm Vaannii sought shelter with relatives. And so began a “very, very tough” transition from a full-time housewife to a sole breadwinner.

When her divorce was granted in 2011, her son went with her ex-husband, while she gained custody of her two daughters. To make ends meet, she started working two shifts as a healthcare assistant.

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In urgent need of housing, she rented a four-room flat on the open market for about S$2,200 a month – a steep price given their financial situation. It was a decision she made “in a rush”, because her daughters were in schools near the flat in Bukit Panjang.

And, she thought, it would only be for a short while because they had something better to look forward to: She had applied successfully for a new flat under a 2012 Sale of Balance Flats exercise.

But then, she was dealt another blow by her ex-husband: He refused to declare that he would not buy a subsidised flat within three years of their divorce.

At the time, only one party of a divorced couple could buy or own a subsidised flat within those first three years. The policy has since been lifted as of March 6, 2018, to help divorcees with children through an “already difficult period of transition”. But back then, her ex-husband’s intransigence dashed her hopes.

Her daughters’ entreaties on her behalf could not move him, and her application had to be cancelled. “If anything happens to me, where are they going to go?” fretted the “very disappointed” and “lost” mother.

FROM FOUR-ROOM TO TWO-ROOM FLAT

After over a year of renting, her savings were running low, even with her 40-per-cent share of the proceeds from the sale of the matrimonial four-room flat in 2012.

That and her S$900 monthly salary as a patient care assistant in a polyclinic would not cover both the rent and her daughters’ education, as well as their living expenses, for long.

So in May 2012, the family applied for a public rental flat from HDB. While the policy then generally debarred people from applying within 30 months of selling their HDB flat, the housing authority looks at applicants’ needs and options on a case-by-case basis.

In Mdm Vaannii’s case, she was assessed to be financially unable to buy a flat and without other options – and so the requirement was waived. They were allocated a rental flat in December.

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Her elder daughter, Ms Vinothinnii, who is now 26, recalls the day she first saw their current two-room rental flat in Clementi. It was a reality check after staying in a four-room flat with her own bedroom.

We walked in, and I just sat in a corner, with my hands on my head.

"How small it was. How were we going to live here?” she thought.

She remembers that they cried as they packed their belongings, such as photo albums and soft toys, for storage in a warehouse. For Mdm Vaannii, having to put away items of sentimental value, chiefly two boxes of saris, was the most painful part of the move.

“All of the saris have meaning,” she said. “Most of them my father bought for me.”

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Still, though they felt as if they were in limbo over the next five years, they made do with the temporary home they had.

And in early 2016, it seemed like things might look up when Ms Vinothinnii began working full-time as an operations manager, and could help with the bills.

The snag: Their monthly rental, which was pegged to household income, was adjusted from S$275 to S$495 after she was a year into her job.

The trouble was that a chunk of her pay of S$2,500 a month was going to her part-time studies at the Singapore Institute of Management. The rent increase wasn’t something they could afford.

Ms Vinothinnii even considered splitting up the family and moving to a relative’s home, in the hopes the rent would remain as it was.

But the idea and the uncertainty of their situation affected her mother so much, that she decided it was time to try again to own their own home, and apply for a flat jointly with her mum.

“I always wanted a house under her own name,” she said.

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A FRESH START, AND HAPPINESS

The turning point in the family’s search for a permanent home came not quite in the way they had expected.

While they were submitting a Sale of Balance Flats application in November 2016, an HDB officer suggested to Mdm Vaannii that she apply for a flat under the newly-minted Fresh Start Housing Scheme.

The scheme is aimed at families with children below the age of 16, who are living in public rental flats and have owned subsidised housing previously. It provides them with a chance to own a home again – specifically, two-room flats with flexible leases ranging between 45 and 65 years, which are more affordable than standard two-room flats with 99-year leases.

It was a significant opportunity for the family because of their tight financial situation. The flat would also come with a grant of up to S$35,000.

And so, in December, Mdm Vaannii applied for the scheme with her two daughters, one of whom – Ms Visalini – was 15 at the time.

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Within a month, the family received a letter from the HDB: Their Sale of Balance Flats application was unsuccessful because their balloted queue position was beyond the available flat supply. But the Fresh Start application went through.

Three months later, they received the official letter of approval. Mdm Vaannii could proceed to apply for a flat – and be a homeowner again. Said her elder daughter: “When she got accepted under Fresh Start, she was the happiest woman.”

HELP TO MAKE A DREAM COME TRUE

But she had lived with uncertainty for so long that, even amid her joy, Mdm Vaannii could not quite shake off the feeling of disbelief. Not even when they were choosing their two-room flat.

I kept asking, ‘Are you sure I’m choosing my flat? Am I really going to buy a flat?’

Fresh Start applicants must meet a set of criteria to “ensure that they’re committed and ready for homeownership”, according to the HDB. They must, for example, qualify for a Letter of Social Assessment from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which would assess their family stability, ability to manage their finances, and the children’s regularity of school attendance.

Mdm Vaannii made the cut. Hers is one of 70 families who have found a home under the scheme so far.

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And for her to make the most of this “dream come true”, HDB and MSF officers were on hand to offer assistance. As she put it, “From nowhere, someone popped up and said, ‘Hey, I’m here to help.’”

For example, HDB senior estate manager Johnson Lim helped her to work out her housing budget, which consisted mainly of her Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings, an HDB concessionary loan (subject to credit assessment), and the Fresh Start Housing Grant, where of which S$20,000 would be credited to her CPF account upfront.

“One of the key aspects of this scheme is financial sustainability,” Mr Lim said. “What I try to do is understand the applicants’ situation and come up with a housing plan according to their circumstances.”

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The flat cost Mdm Vaannii about S$133,000, after incorporating a reduced resale levy of S$16,700 based on the 60-year lease period. And she opted for a flat with all the finishes, which will help her save on renovation costs.

As they waited for the day they could finally move in, her family were hardly able to contain themselves. They went for drives in her brother-in-law’s van to see their new block in Bukit Batok take shape.

“Every week, without fail,” said Ms Vinothinnii with a smile. “They have to see whether the house is okay, if the construction is okay. They even inspected the car parks.”

HOME SWEET HOME, FINALLY

When it came time to collect her new set of keys, Mdm Vaannii was visibly nervous – but above all, deeply moved. As were her daughters. Ms Vinothinnii burst into tears as she walked down the corridor to their flat.

“Tears of joy,” she managed to say. “The struggle has finally paid off.”

With her family cheering behind her, Mdm Vaannii opened the door of her new home. Bare as it was, excited squeals filled every corner as the family flooded into the flat.

Taking a moment for herself, Mdm Vaannii stood by the window to admire the greenery outside. “I’m starting anew – after a very long time, having our own home,” she said, teary-eyed. 

I’m so happy. No words to talk.

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In fact, this will be their home for at least 20 years, the minimum occupation period under the Fresh Start scheme. Ms Visalini, now 17, is looking forward to holding family gatherings here, while her older sister is chewing over renovation ideas.

Their mother is planning on doing one thing first: Moving her saris out of the warehouse for good. “There’s a storeroom (here), so we can put a cupboard in there,” she said. “I’ll hang the saris. Only the saris.”

In the place she can finally call her own home, sweet home.

This story was done in collaboration with Gov.sg.

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