Small band of dissenters fights en bloc sale frenzy

The Straits Times (Singapore)
May 30, 2007 Wednesday

Joyce Teo, Property Correspondent

RETIREE Mary Chan, who is in her 70s, does not own or know how to use a computer.

But it has not stopped her from making it known that she opposes the collective sale looming in her housing estate.

The feisty former teacher, who declined to give her real name, hand-wrote letters and got them typed up by a friend.

'I spent about $20 on photocopying 350 letters and had the help of friends to put them in the estate's post boxes,' she said.

Home owners like her are in the minority camp in housing estates up for collective sale - the minority fighting to stop the sale going through.

But she appears to have lost the fight for the 618-unit Farrer Court, put up for sale this month for a whopping $1.5 billion. More than 80 per cent of the owners there gave the approval needed for the sale to proceed.

Collective sales, which largely fizzled out after the market downturn in 2000, have come back strongly in the past two years.

Increasingly bigger residential deals have been sewn up this year. Two weeks before Farrer Court was put up for sale, for instance, the 314-unit Leedon Heights was sold for $835 million.

The rising property market has fuelled developers' demand for choice sites now occupied by ageing estates, residents of which hope to make far more than if they were to sell their units individually.

Those who say 'no' to such windfalls typically argue that they cannot find another home of similar size in the same area. They prize their homes, which are often large units in prime areas.

Others say 'no' because they are attached to their homes and have less need for riches.

As Farrer Court's Madam Chan said: 'How much money do I want? I can only eat three meals a day and sleep on one bed. I have a few good friends who live here and who are my exercise partners.'

These dissenters are typically comfortably off, well-educated and fluent in English.

Some, but not all, are retirees.

For example, 'Mr D', 39, a resident in a Holland Road condo, has a full-time profession.

His approach is slightly different from Madam Chan's.

He knew little about collective sales before, but has since done his homework - he has read up on the statutes, researched previous sales, sent letters to the media and even to opposition political parties, and gone online to discuss the issue.

In his blog, he warns people about the 'implications' of collective sales.

Even tenants in estates going through the collective sale mill have joined in. Permanent resident 'Mr H', who rents a unit in an estate that has gone en bloc, blogs about it.

He will soon have to move, and is upset as he will have to pay higher rent on his next apartment. He is even mulling over his future in Singapore, where he has spent eight years.

What peeves him is that tenants - with valid leases - have to move out, and legislation makes no mention of them or their rights.

The one thing these dissenters have in common is that they are secretive. They do not want to be 'outed' as the ones blocking the majority group's way to a jackpot - or worse, being accused of egging on others to do the same.

They also do not want to be hounded by 'predatory' agents eager for a deal to be struck.

One dissenter, who declined to be named, said there is a sort of witchhunt against minority owners.

Indeed, there have been stories going around that dissenters have received nasty messages, or had their cars scratched.

This is why they do not want their names - or even that of their estates - mentioned.

Still, they want their say. Aside from Madam Chan and her low-tech method, other dissenters have been busy.

Another retiree who wanted to be known only as Madam Tan has fired letters to the Government and the media against collective sales.

She began a blog on the subject in March and made instant online friends out of depressed or angry strangers in the same boat.

She said that although she had written to officialdom, her blog would get her view into the public arena in the interest of 'greater public knowledge'.

She declared: 'I am hanging by my claws to my maisonette. It is the only roof I have.'

Her 1,600-sq-ft home is in a prime area near Orchard Road, where sweet collective deals have been sealed in the past year.

The 'en bloc fire' in her 13-year-old estate has, for now, been tamed because under 80 per cent of owners are keen.

But she said she is not out of the woods yet: Last week, another agent made a vastly better offer for the estate.

In Meyer Park, meanwhile, dissenters, besides trying to persuade their neighbours not to sell, have hired a lawyer to fend off overtures from those in favour of a sale, said a source.

But 'Mr D' said he is not hopeful minority owners will hold out forever.

He said: 'I doubt you'll ever get minority owners chaining themselves to the gates of their estate in the path of bulldozers like Greenpeace activists. Local lobbying fizzles out when it is seen as ineffective.'

Still, despite this and the rude (anonymous) e-mail messages he has received about his bid to stop the sale of his estate, he is not giving up.

He sees his efforts as 'balancing the unequal power agents, lawyers and seasoned en bloc investors have against disadvantaged owners who are new or not in favour of en bloc sales'.

Property consultants have noticed that minority owners have become more aggressive.

DTZ Debenham Tie Leung's director of investment advisory services, Ms Tang Wei Leng, said a consultant's role in a collective sale is to help owners make informed decisions, but 'there will always be owners who, for different reasons, will not want to sell, no matter the price, and we respect that'.

But another consultant said urban renewal is a continual process, and, depending on what the majority wants, everyone just has to 'move on'.

The dynamic between the pro- and anti-en bloc camps could change soon, when legislation governing such sales is tightened.

The Ministry of Law closed a public consultation exercise this month, and changes - which are thought to make it tougher to push through such sales - are expected to be implemented by the third quarter of this year.

'Mr D' hopes something will come of this.

As he put it: 'There are social consequences to en bloc sales. There are issues of communal identity, the notion of community, the notion of home.

'Some weeks I'm tired out from the sense of helplessness, but the 'activist' part of me won't let the profiteering people get away with systematically destroying legitimate owners' homes.'

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