Monday, January 13, 2014

Lots of room for improvement at 'retirement resort'

Jan 12, 2014

By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent

Interest in Singapore's lukewarm property market heated up in the New Year as showflats of what is being billed as the first "retirement resort" opened for previews last weekend.

First off the block after a 20-year debate on whether Singapore should have retirement communities, The Hillford in Upper Bukit Timah comes with plenty of promise.

Developer World Class Land says the 281 units will have elder-friendly features such as emergency alarm systems in bedrooms and bathrooms linked to a 24-hour concierge service counter. A full-time "resort manager" will coordinate activities such as yoga and art or enrichment classes for residents.

It promises a staggering list of more than 30 recreational facilities and spaces, including swimming pools, a reading lounge, fitness corner, gym and theatrette. Residents will also have access to clinics, restaurants and an eldercare centre.

The development is likely to go on sale next weekend.

But before opening their chequebooks, older buyers must carefully consider the details about this project that may well be glossed over by the sharp-suited men and women hired to sell this golden retirement dream.

For starters, although The Hillford bills itself as "Singapore's first retirement resort", it has no age restrictions on ownership or occupancy. In Europe, Australia and the United States, most such developments tend to be restricted to seniors above a certain age.

Asked about this, the developer told The Sunday Times it would give potential buyers "flexibility" and it was "only natural - given our Asian context - for families to want to stay together".

Indeed, there are a small number of two-bedroom "dual key" units which will enable parents to live with their adult children.

Older folk like Ms Cecilia Ng, who is in her late 50s, say in that case, The Hillford should at least have had a provision for the majority of occupants to be seniors. "With no age bars, the very purpose of a retirement village is in danger of being compromised," said the retired school principal, who has visited an age-restricted community for seniors in the US.

Retirement housing remains a niche development overseas, with only 10 per cent to 15 per cent of older adults interested in living in them. Residents tend to be single or widowed, or to not have or to not want their children to live with them.

So it could be argued that the real reason there is no age restriction at The Hillford is to enable the developer to sell units as fast as possible and offset what have been seen as early sticking points: the price of the units and the fact that the development has a 60-year lease. Other private properties here are freehold or come with a 99-year lease.

Current prices start at $388,000 for a one-bedroom 398 sq ft unit, which, given the limited lease period, is considered steep by many retirees.

But young buyers, some of whom have been priced out of the condo market after curbs on shoebox units, may find the price attractive and buy a unit, given its rental and investment potential and proximity to good schools. Indeed, potential buyers in their early 30s with young children in tow have appeared on national television extolling the virtues of having good schools nearby.

A second issue is that there is no guarantee that all the senior-friendly services being advertised now will indeed see the light of day.

In the West and in Australia, retirement villages are often operated by aged care companies. The Hillford is being built by a property developer, albeit with input from an experienced Australian retirement housing expert.

Traditionally, aged care companies have care staff who work with residents long-term to meet their evolving physical and emotional needs. Some of these companies even buy back units or help heirs to sell them when the resident dies.

Property developers, on the other hand, tend to build, sell and get out.
So as with any other condominium in Singapore, The Hillford's management will eventually be handed over to a management corporation strata title (MCST) committee. Comprising residents, it will have veto power over services and facilities in the condominium. In theory, if the majority of buyers are young, they could nix support services for the old.

The developer says the property has been positioned for active, independent seniors aged 50 and above, and that a "substantial proportion" of those interested in buying comes from this target segment. A spokesman said it "does not expect the MCST to make any drastic changes to the property".

Still, there are no guarantees. In countries such as Australia and New Zealand, retirement village developments are legally bound to continue providing the core benefits and services promised to the elderly resident in his occupation agreement.

So if a developer promises a 24-hour concierge service, for instance, this cannot be done away with simply because a majority of the younger residents do not want to pay for it.

Finally, there is also some apprehension over the fact that The Hillford aims to cater to "independent and active" seniors. Indeed, the design of the showflats is not in sync with the safety needs of frail elderly. The marble living room floor, for instance, is a slipping hazard.

There are some obstacles for wheelchair-users too, such as the small step to enter the bathroom, the lack of a shower bench and no grab bars - although the latter can be added on request. The shower area has a glass panel, blocking wheelchair access.

As a journalist covering ageing issues, I have visited more than a dozen retirement communities in Europe and the United States and spoken to those who run similar developments in Australia.

The latest trends in retirement housing lean towards communities which cater not just to an older person when he is independent, but also as he becomes frail and infirm.

Residents can continue living in the same unit even when they lose mobility, if cared for by trained care staff. There are no such provisions here. These are issues developers of retirement villages here will need to consider.

But these shortcomings of The Hillford cannot take away from the fact that its developers have dared to go where none has gone before despite the growing clamour for more retirement housing options.

Imperfect it may be but it is a start to fulfilling a demand that was first voiced nearly two decades ago.

[The conclusion seems like a cop-out. If it is a bad idea for developers to try to set up a "retirement village", then call it what it is - an attempt by developers to "suggest" a "solution" while selling their development for the best price they can get. 

A true "retirement village" development will require age limits or at least some way of ensuring that most of the buyer/residents are of a minimum age (say 50 or 55).  Of course, that would by definition limit the take-up, and limit the success of the launch.

Another solution may be to require that the MCST c'tee members to be of a minimum age. Or require that all resolutions that attempt to do away with some "core retirement village elements" require assent by an MCST "Senior Senate" made up of members who are senior citizens.

All these suggest one thing: retirement village, if they are to function truly as retirement villages, are not the money-makers that developers will want to develop. They will be unable to recoup their investment with comparable returns, because a) the target market of older, independent, active retirees is rather small, b) as retirees, the potential buyers will not have the future income to finance a heavy long-term investment. ]

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