Yoon considers himself lucky. He survived. A few miles away, a teenage girl, her mother and aunt with Down syndrome drowned in their basement home. In a nearby neighborhood, a resident with a developmental disability escaped but returned to rescue her cat, became trapped inside and died.
Record rainfall in parts of South Korea, which killed at least 11 people this week, has drawn attention to Seoul’s most vulnerable residents, who live in semi-subterranean floodplains. The lack of funding and planning to protect the city’s hundreds of thousands of poor, elderly and disabled people has sparked 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-basements in response to the disaster, which residents and experts say is only a short-term solution to housing growth and income inequality in the capital region. A decade ago, in response to the last major flood that inundated the capital region, Seoul made a similar pledge that has not been fulfilled.
Apartment prices in Seoul have more than doubled in the past five years as rising interest rates and mortgages increasingly drive residents away from home ownership. Landlords have raised rental prices sharply, pushing people out of homes they can no longer afford.
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“Although dark, moldy and unsanitary, it was the only affordable option I could find,” Yoon, a college student, said of his home. “I agree it’s an inhumane environment for people, 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, including the affluent Gangnam region, have been repeatedly hit. “For South Korea, climate change will largely be felt through extreme weather events, primarily floods in some areas and droughts in others,” wrote the Institute for Policy Studies, a center think tank. -left based in Washington.
In the aftermath of record rainfall on Monday and Tuesday, horrific stories emerged of those trapped inside when flood pressure sealed their front doors. Some escaped through ground-level windows that are often boarded up with metal bars for security. These houses, or ‘banjiha’, captured worldwide attention after their depiction in the Oscar-winning film ‘Parasite’.
Elderly couple, 90 and 87, knocked on their window for help as water rushed in on their chest, and an upstairs neighbor broke down their window so they could escape, Korean media reported. A 67-year-old woman living alone was watching television when she noticed her living room was filling with water. As neighbors struggled to remove the metal security bars with a saw, the glass in his front door cracked, relieving the water pressure and allowing him to escape.
These stories sparked a 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 torrential flood has once again reminded us that disasters do not treat everyone equally. In particular, it has been very harmful to socially disadvantaged, low-income and disabled people who live in semi-basements,” said Jang Hye-young, a lawmaker from the Liberal Minority Justice Party and disability rights advocate.
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The cramped, tiny apartments that barely get sunlight are a relic of the 1970s, when many basements were built as bunkers in case of a North Korean attack. They were originally off-limits, but were converted to rental accommodation due to a housing crisis. According to the 2020 census, there are about 330,000 banjiha houses nationwide, including about 200,000 in Seoul.
On Wednesday, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said it would ban such spaces to be inhabited and announced a plan that offers monetary incentives and a 10-20 year grace period to convert banjiha houses to non-residential use. The banjiha spaces would then be redeveloped into warehouses or other facilities. The city government has offered public rental housing as alternative housing for residents.
“The policy we are working on is not a band-aid solution, but a fundamental solution to protect security and provide our citizens with housing stability,” Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in a statement. .
For many, Oh’s commitment was a moment of deja vu after the severe floods of 2010. Under Oh, who served 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 laws prohibiting the construction of new banjiha apartments in areas that are usually flooded. Still, 40,000 new banjiha units have been built in the capital since then, according to the city.
This week’s renewed plan has been criticized by disability rights advocates and housing experts, who say it overlooks fundamental housing inequalities in South Korea.
“It sounds good in the immediate term, but it’s unrealistic and empty,” said Jang, the lawmaker. “Without solving fundamental problems, such as the shortage of public rental housing in the metropolitan area, the excessive burden of housing costs on low-income households and the insufficiency of the institutional system of rent control, an advertisement alone will not solve nothing correctly. ”
In response to the latest major flood, Oh promised the city government would increase spending on flood prevention services. Under his successor, who served from 2011 to 2020, the flood prevention budget increased every year until 2019, although it has since fallen. City officials say the budget has shrunk because major projects have 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 avoid 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 rising housing prices and a lack of public rental housing to accommodate residents moving out of banjiha units, policymakers need to devise comprehensive long-term policies, said housing protection expert Kim Seung-hee. at Kangwon National University in South Korea.
One of the main causes of rising housing prices is growing income inequality across classes, generations and regions, which are affected by broader economic and social trends. Policymakers must address these challenges by systematically instituting an expansion of public rental housing and housing subsidies, Kim said.
“It should be preceded by a policy change that focuses on people and not on volume of supply,” Kim said. “The priority of housing assistance should be set according to the profile of disadvantaged people.”