Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On The Hunt For Illegal Tenants

Source : The Straits Times, Oct 7, 2008

The HDB has stepped up enforcement blitzes to stop the illegal subletting of its subsidised rental flats. Jessica Cheam joined Housing Board officers in the search for illegal tenants at a block in Circuit Road last week.

ONE sign that something fishy might be going on at a rental flat is this: closed shutters and doors - especially if the lights are on.

An HDB officer pasting a "Notic to Quit" letter on the door of a subsidised rental flat in a block in Circuit Road. The letter orders the tenant, believed to be illegally subletting the flat, to contact HDB and vacate the unit within a month. -- PHOTO: HDB

HDB officers were on the lookout for such flats at a 16-storey rental block with two- and three-room units in Circuit Road as part of their stepped-up checks last Tuesday.

Such checks are in addition to HDB's regular visits to all rental flats to ensure tenants are not illegally subletting the flats for profit.

Those with nothing to hide usually leave windows and doors open for ventilation as rental flats typically do not have air-conditioning.

When The Straits Times joined them on their inspection last week, the officers spent little time at several flats that had their doors open, taking only a few seconds to verify the status of the tenants.

Equipped with a file detailing tenants' names and particulars, they went around in pairs, knocking on doors. They said they typically visit after working hours or during weekends, when tenants are likely to be at home.

A Thai teenager was found living in this unit that the HDB had rented out to a 70-year-old man. -- PHOTO: HDB

When a tenant answered the door, they asked for names to verify identities. They also kept a lookout for any irregularities in the flat or in an occupant's profile, such as a mismatch of his or her stated age with the records on file.

Units with doors closed were harder to inspect. In some cases, nobody was at home and in others, the occupants had apparently decided not to open the door.

After knocking on about 10 doors, the officers stopped at one flat where no one had responded. Although the windows and door were firmly shut, the lights were on and faint noises could be heard - betraying the presence of its occupants.

The officers rapped loudly on the window's metal shutters. One officer, Mr Tan (not his real name), called out: 'Is anybody home?'

No answer.

'It's the HDB,' he called out again, this time identifying himself.

Still no answer.

Mr Tan and his colleague were about to move on when a girl aged about 15 opened the door. She said she was staying at the flat for a week with her parent's female friend, who was not in at the moment.

According to Mr Tan's records, the tenant was a 70-year-old man.

The officers exchanged knowing looks. Mr Tan politely but firmly asked her to unlock the gate, assuring her it was a 'regular HDB inspection'.

She looked scared but let them in. They took photographs of the interior, part of their procedure to gather evidence, and noted that it appeared to be occupied only by her.

There was just one bed in the two-room flat. Books and girls' clothing were strewn all over the flat; a laptop and a television sat in the corner. On a table were some Thai baht notes.

Mr Tan explained that he needed a statement from her. Looking worried, she finally confessed.

She said she was a student from Thailand who went to a secondary school nearby. Her 'parent's friend' did not live with her and visited only occasionally to collect the mail. Obviously not aware of the rental rules, she revealed - to raised eyebrows - that she paid $1,000 a month to live there.

This meant that her landlord - the legal tenant who pays a base rent of $44 - had been making a tidy profit of up to $956 a month.

Mr Tan asked the girl if they could have the contact number of her 'parent's friend' but she refused to give it to them.

The team thanked her for cooperating and left.

The next day, HDB pasted a 'Notice to Quit' on the door - giving the tenant notice to contact the Housing Board and vacate the flat within a month.

What if the girl had not answered the door?

Mr Tan said 'it's three strikes and it's out' - at the third visit, if no one answers the door, a similar 'Notice to Quit' is pasted on the door.

'This usually gets the tenant ringing us in a hurry,' he said.

He added that neighbours have helped HDB with its checks by ringing its hotline to give feedback.

The HDB is not ruling out imposing a heftier penalty - in the form of fines - on tenants who illegally sublet their flats.

Currently, tenants illegally renting out their home can lose the flat and face a five-year ban from renting or buying HDB property.

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