Observer  /  Community  /  Health

How Seoul failed its most vulnerable, flooded in their basement homes

Original publication by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Min Joo Kim for washingtonpost.com on 12 August 2022

Workers clear debris from a sopping semi-subterranean apartment in Seoul on Aug. 11. 
(Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

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

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

Yoon considers himself lucky. He survived. Just a few miles 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, got trapped inside and died.

The record rainfall in parts ofSouth Korea this week that killed at least 11 drew into focus Seoul’s most vulnerable residents, who live in semi-underground flood hazards. 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 slashed flood-related spending by about a third, from about $474 million to $323 million in 2022, budget documents show.

Seoul’s mayor announced this week plans to phase out half-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. About a decade ago, in response to the last major flood to inundate the capital area, Seoul made a similar commitment that went unfulfilled.

Apartment prices in Seoul have more than doubled in the past five years, with rising interest rates and mortgages increasingly pricing residents out of homeownership. Landlords have sharply raised rental prices, pushing people out of homes they can no longer afford.

“Though dark, musty and unhygienic, it was the only affordable option that I could find,” Yoon, a student, said of his home. “I agree it is 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 not likely to be the last. In recent years, Seoul has increasingly been exposed to extreme weather such as heat waves and floods. Low-lying areas in southern Seoul, even including the affluent Gangnam area, have repeatedly been hit. “For South Korea, climate change will largely be felt through extreme weather events, primarily flooding in certain areas and droughts in others,” wrote the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based center-left think tank.

In the aftermath of Monday and Tuesday’s record rainfall, horrific stories emerged of those who were trapped inside when pressure from the floods sealed their front doors shut. Some escaped through ground-level windows that are often barricaded with metal bars as a security measure. These homes, or “banjiha,” gained global attention after their depiction in the Academy Award-winning movie “Parasite.”

An elderly couple, ages 90 and 87, banged on their window for help as water rushedto their chests, and a neighbor upstairs broke open their window so they could escape,Korean media reported. A 67-year-old living alone was watching television when she noticed her living room fill up 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 flee.

An unattached security grill for a semi-basement apartment in Seoul after the flooding.
(Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

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

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

The cramped, tiny apartments that get barely any sunlight are a relic of the 1970s, when many basements were built as bunkers in event of a North Korean attack. They were originally banned from being lived in but were converted into rental units because of a housing crunch. 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 spacesfrom being lived in and announced a plan that offers monetary incentives and a grace period of 10 to 20 years to convert banjiha homes for nonresidential use. The banjiha spaces would then be repurposed into warehouses or other facilities. The city government proposed public rental housing as alternative homes for residents.

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

For many, Oh’s commitment was a deja vu moment from the aftermath of serious floods in 2010. Under Oh, who served a previous stint as mayor between 2006 and 2011, the city proposed prohibiting the issue of new construction permits for banjiha units.

In 2012, the national government passed laws to ban the building 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 renewed plan was 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 resolving 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 rent control system, an announcement alone will not solve anything properly.”

Heavy flooding in Seoul early this week.
(Yonhap News Agency/Reuters)

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

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

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

With rising housing prices and a lack of public rental homes to accommodate residents who move 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.

One major cause of housing price hikes is growing income inequality across class, generations and regions, which are affected by larger economic and social trends. Policymakers need to contend with these challenges by systemically instituting an expansion of public rental housing and housing subsidies, Kim said.

“It should be preceded by a human-focused policy shift from a focus on the volume of supply,” Kim said. “The priority of the housing support should be set based on the profile of the underprivileged.”

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