ABOUT 10 private estate households in Geylang Serai have sought financial or job-related assistance this year - something that was once almost unheard of.
They have approached grassroots organisations in the area, in a development that flies in the face of the common assumption that people in HDB flats are the ones who need government help.
"Five years ago, there were zero such cases," said Mr Eric Wong, who chairs Geylang Serai's citizens' consultative committee.
One factor fuelling the increase may be the small but growing group of elderly people who are unwilling to sell their private homes but require assistance and handouts from the Government.
Mr Wong gave the example of a couple in their 70s whose electricity supply was almost cut off because they owed more than $1,000 to Singapore Power. The situation was especially dire as the wife had suffered a stroke and required expensive care.
Now they have successfully applied to pay the outstanding utility bills in monthly instalments. Over the years, the childless couple had used up their Central Provident Fund savings to pay for their private property, which is worth more than $1 million.
"A permanent solution is to downgrade to a smaller place but the husband is currently not in the right mindset to sell the property," said Mr Wong. "We will let him work through his sums and over time he will understand the situation."
Forty per cent of Geylang Serai's 58,000 residents live in private estates. Many elderly people in landed homes bought them years ago when properties were cheaper, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Halimah Yacob.
Now retired, they either have no steady income or do not have enough coming in to keep up with the cost of living.
"One solution is for them to downgrade to a flat so that they can use the proceeds from the sale for their daily needs," added the MP for Jurong GRC.
"But this is not an easy option because some of them have lived there almost their entire life, and in their twilight years, it is not easy for them to adjust to HDB living."
Madam Halimah has successfully requested financial assistance for a sick elderly widow with a schizophrenic daughter, who live in a private home in Bukit Batok East.
"I have visited them a couple of times and I could see that although they live in a landed property, the house is quite run-down and it is very simple," she said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development told The Straits Times that most hard-up families living in landed properties needed help for an interim period while they worked to stabilise their situations.
Although assistance schemes cater mainly to those whose incomes are in the bottom 20 per cent, there are still some ComCare programmes available for private estate residents. These include short- or medium-term monthly cash grants.
A longer-term solution is the Ageing-in-Place Priority Scheme introduced by the HDB in March. It allows property owners to downsize to a studio apartment.
Property consultant Christopher Koh said: "It is difficult for the Government to extend even more help to these private property owners if they continue to hold on to their private properties.
"These elderly folk need to realise that through their wisdom of buying private property in Singapore in the early years, they now have a comfortable income if they dispose of their existing private property and are willing to downgrade."