(Image: The Straits Times)

It is undeniable that many homeowners in Singapore benefit from HDB housing grants which help shed off some burden from home loans.

To help keep flat ownership within reach of Singaporeans, the Housing Board has given out almost $2 billion to households here, under two major public housing grants.

Under the Additional CPF Housing Grant (AHG) scheme, which offers up to $40,000 for first-timers buying new or resale flats, $1.6 billion has been given out to 82,873 households since it was introduced in March 2006.

The Special CPF Housing Grant (SHG) of up to $40,000, which is for first-timers buying new four-room and smaller flats, was introduced in March 2011. Since then, $297.6 million has been given out to 19,542 households. Most – 17,930 – took up the SHG after changes in July 2013, when the income ceiling was raised and the grant was extended to four-roomers. It had previously been for three- and two-roomers.

HDB figures showed that from January to the end of November, 8,098 households received the AHG. This was slightly less, proportionately, than the 9,817 households that received the grant in the whole of 2014.

The difference between the years was greater for the SHG.

In the first 11 months of last year, 7,192 households received the SHG. This was about a quarter less, proportionately, than the 10,095 households that received it in all of 2014.

This is despite improvements to the SHG announced in August last year that made it more attractive and available to more families.

Families earning up to $8,500 a month became eligible, compared with a maximum $6,500 previously.

According to the HDB, this made an additional 6,500 families eligible for the grant. The maximum grant amount was also doubled from $20,000 to $40,000.

One reason the SHG take-up rate fell despite these changes could be that the changes kicked in only at the November launch of new flats.

Unlike in 2014, when new flats were launched every two months, there were only three launches last year. The biggest, in November, formed almost half the year's total supply and combined the planned August and November launches.

The AHG and SHG cases from that bumper launch are not included in the 2015 figures, the HDB said. "The number of cases that took up AHG and SHG in 2015 would be much higher if the deferment of the August 2015 BTO is taken into account."

Another factor could have been the overall fall in the number of new flats launched last year, compared to 2014.

In 2014, a total of 29,129 flats were offered in Build-To-Order and Sale of Balance Flats exercises. Last year, this fell to 25, 837.

The cut in supply would have affected the take-up rate of the SHG, in particular, as it applies only to new flats bought from the HDB, and not to resale flats.

SLP International Property Consultants' head of research Nicholas Mak noted that if the take- up rate was adjusted for the change in supply, it would have risen.

And more BTO units launched last year were from mature estates, compared with 2014, noted OrangeTee senior manager of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang.

This would have affected take-up rates as the SHG is only for four-room and smaller flats in non-mature estates, he added.

(First published in The Straits Times)