After the Seoul floods, focus on the basement ‘banjiha’ dwellers

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SEOUL — As rainwater poured into Yoon Jin-hyeok’s semi-subterranean apartment on Monday, night of South Korea’s historic downpour, the 26-year-old and his two roommates struggled to pump water out of their 390-square-meter home. But the water filled up to their knees in just an hour.

“I felt so desperate,” Yoon said days later as he shoveled mud and dirt out of his home.

Yoon considers himself lucky. He survived. Just a few kilometers away, a teenager, her mother and aunt, who had Down syndrome, drowned in their semi-basement home. In a nearby district, a resident with a developmental disability escaped but returned to rescue her cat, was trapped inside and died.

The record record in parts of South Korea this week, which killed at least 11, put the spotlight on Seoul’s most vulnerable residents, who live in semi-subterranean floodplains. The lack of funding and planning to protect hundreds of thousands of the city’s poor, elderly and disabled has spurred widespread anger. Over the past three years, the Seoul city government has cut flood-related spending by about a third, from about $474 million to $323 million in 2022, budget documents show.

Seoul’s mayor this week announced plans to phase out semi-basement units in response to the disaster, which residents and experts say is only a short-term solution to growing housing and income inequality in the area around the capital. Apartment prices in Seoul have more than doubled in the past five years, with rising interest rates and mortgages increasingly pricing residents out of home ownership. Landlords have sharply raised rents and pushed people out of homes they can no longer afford.

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“Even though it was dark, musty and unsanitary, it was the only affordable option I could find,” Yoon, a student, said of her home. “I agree that it’s an inhumane environment for people to live in, but we didn’t come here because we wanted to. Do we really have other options?”

This week’s devastating floods are unlikely to be the last. In recent years, Seoul has been increasingly exposed to extreme weather events such as heat waves and floods. Low-lying areas in southern Seoul, even including the affluent Gangnam area, have been repeatedly hit. “For South Korea, climate change will be felt largely through extreme weather events, primarily floods in some areas and droughts in others,” wrote the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based center-left think tank.

In the wake of Monday and Tuesday’s record-breaking rains, horror stories emerged of those trapped inside as flood pressure closed their front doors. Some escaped through floor-to-ceiling windows, often barred with metal bars as a security measure. These homes, or “banjiha,” gained global attention after their portrayal in the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”

An elderly couple aged 90 and 87 knocked on their window for help as the water poured in to their chests, and an upstairs neighbor broke their window so they could escape, It was reported by Korean media. A 67-year-old who lived alone was watching television when she noticed her living room filled with water. As neighbors struggled to remove the metal security bars with a saw, the glass on her front door cracked, relieving the water pressure and allowing her to escape.

These stories have sparked public outcry, prompting calls for more resources and attention to public services for marginalized communities, as well as an overhaul of the country’s housing and climate policies to protect them.

“This severe flood reminded us once again that disasters do not treat everyone equally. In particular, it was most damaging to the socially disadvantaged, low-income and disabled people who live in half-basements,” said Jang Hye-young, a lawmaker from the liberal minority Justice Party and an advocate for disability rights.

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The cramped, tiny apartments that barely get any sunlight are a holdover from the 1970s, when many basements were built as bunkers in case of a North Korean attack. They were initially banned from being inhabited, but were converted into rental housing due to the housing crisis. There are about 330,000 banjiha homes nationwide, with about 200,000 in Seoul according to the 2020 census.

On Wednesday, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said it would ban such spaces from being lived in, and announced a plan offering monetary incentives and a grace period of 10 to 20 years to convert banjiha homes to non-residential use. The Banjiha spaces would then be converted into warehouses or other facilities. The city government proposed public rental housing as alternative housing for the residents.

“The policy we are working on is not a temporary solution, but a fundamental solution to protect security and provide housing stability to our citizens,” Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in a statement.

For many, Oh’s involvement was a deja vu moment from 2010, when another major flood inundated the Seoul metro area. Under Oh, who served a previous stint as mayor between 2006 and 2011, the city proposed banning the issuance of new building permits for banjiha units.

In 2012, the national government passed new laws to ban the construction of new banjiha apartments in habitually flooded areas. Still, 40,000 new banjiha units have been built in the capital since then, according to the city.

This week’s revamped plan was criticized by both disability rights advocates and housing experts, who say it overlooks fundamental housing inequalities in South Korea.

“It sounds good in the short term, but it’s unrealistic and empty,” said Jang, the lawmaker. “Without solving fundamental problems, such as the lack of public rental housing in the metropolitan area, the excessive burden of housing costs on low-income households and the inadequacy of the institutional rent control system, an announcement alone will not solve anything properly. “

In response to the last major flood, Oh promised that the city government would increase spending on flood prevention services. Under his successor, who served from 2011 to 2020, the budget for flood prevention increased annually until 2019, although it has fallen since. City officials say the budget fell because major projects had been completed.

But housing experts say city planners still need to prioritize flood prevention, especially for affordable housing.

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“The Seoul Metropolitan Government cutting the flood prevention budget was the wrong thing to do. … To prevent damage from natural disasters, you need to prepare for them when there is no disaster,” said Kwon Dae-jung, professor of real estate studies at Myongji University in Seoul.

With housing prices rising and a shortage of public rental housing to accommodate residents moving out of banjiha units, policymakers need to devise long-term, comprehensive policies, said Kim Seung-hee, a housing welfare expert at Kangwon National University in South Korea.

A major cause of house price increases is growing income inequality across class, generation and region, which is influenced by larger economic and social trends. Policymakers need to grapple with these challenges by systematically introducing an expansion of public rental housing and housing subsidies, Kim said.

“It should precede a people-focused policy shift from focusing on the amount of supply,” Kim said. “The priority of the housing allowance should be determined based on the profile of the underprivileged.”

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