A worker clears water from her shop at the historic Namseong Market in the Gangnam district of Seoul after record-breaking rains caused severe flooding in parts of South Korea, on Aug. 9. (Photo: AFP)
South Korea’s prominent female parliamentarian Sim Sang-Jung has spearheaded a campaign to ensure better housing in capital Seoul following the deaths of 11 people in devastating floods.
In response to a request from Sim, the Korean Urban Research Institute conducted a discussion to find solutions for shabby basement housing in the South Korean capital on Aug. 23, Catholic News of Korea reported.
Sim, 63, a legislator from Seoul and a presidential candidate in the May 9 election, has long been known for her women’s rights and labor activism.
Choi Eun-young, director of the institute insisted on immediate actions to avoid the recurrence of the disasters in the future.
"We need to respond now, not to investigate the situation,” Choi said, adding that investigations have been conducted since 2005, and data has been accumulated on the suffering of people living in basements.
“It is not the first time that people have lost their lives to floods in the basement. In the future, disasters will become permanent, so for the poor, their home becomes a weapon, not a home.”
Government data shows some 327,000 households lived in basements in 2020. About 96 percent of basement dwellers were concentrated in three major metropolitan areas – Seoul (61.4 percent), Gyeonggi-do (27.2 percent), and Incheon (7.4 percent).
Basement living in South Korea was featured in the 2019 film, Parasite, which earned accolades globally, and became the first South Korean film to win Academy Awards.
The panel discussion also covered practical solutions to alleviating the suffering faced by individuals and families living in damp and unhygienic underground spaces.
Advocate Kang-hoon Lee observed that the high rent of residences and the need for more space force individuals to seek basement accommodations.
“Under the current housing market rent situation in Seoul, it is difficult for underground residents to move into single-family houses without significantly reducing their living area,” said Lee.
He proposed a gradual ban on basement housing with its implementation and lower flood-prone areas to reduce the budgetary impact on the government.
He recommended limiting, “housing measures in areas prone to flood damage.”
“This will also reduce the financial resources needed to solve the problem,” advocate Lee added.
Many Koreans opt for basement housing are the low availability of public rental housing, low-income levels, and soaring apartment prices, observers say.
Government data shows the state has built 1.3 million rental units to fend off the housing crisis that it is facing.
The government of former President Moon Jae-in had proposed an additional 140,000 housing units to be added to the pool by 2025. The Yoon Seok-yeol administration reduced the figure to 100,000 units.
An independent study conducted by lawmaker Sim’s office found more than half of the basement population were in their 50s and 60s indicating a lower monthly income threshold.
About 15 percent of the households have reported receiving basic livelihood benefits which are 5 times higher than that of all the households in Seoul combined.
Cheap housing options are rare in South Korea. For example, an apartment that cost 607 million won in 2017 cost up to 1.21 billion won (US$1.03 million) in October 2021 in the capital Seoul.
In April 2022 the city's first Housing Welfare Center opened in Yongsan District, central Seoul to provide a comprehensive range of residential services that were previously overseen by different institutions.
The center provides public housing to an estimated 96,000 people living in places such as jjokbang (a house divided into small rooms to accommodate more people), gosiwon (small studios primarily meant for students), and temporary accommodation on farms covered by vinyl sheets.