The Cry of Jjokbangchon Residents, "Where Can We Go? Time Is Running Out!"

Yi Jae-im, Korean People’s Solidarity Against Poverty Activist 2021. 9. 24. 18:00
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One day in the sultry summer of 2018, people were busy installing a washer and dryer in a shanty located in 9-19 Dongja-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. It was the Doldaritgol Laundromat, which the city of Seoul opened as part of its measures to help the vulnerable overcome the heatwave. Residents with high hopes gathered their laundry soaked with sweat, put the dirty clothes in the washer, and pressed the button to start a wash cycle. When the washer began to operate, the old walls and ceiling of the shanty began to tremble along with the vibration of the washer. The building was too old to house a washer. The laundromat was soon closed due to safety reasons.

Just because a building has walls and a roof doesn’t mean it is a home. In the summer, rain drops from the ceiling, and in the winter, the water in a bowl placed indoors freezes. The people who live in these not so house-like houses are bearing the climate crisis with their bare bodies, but state support for them is far too lacking. Among the buildings in the jjokbangchon, a “cubicle village” or shantytown, in Dongja-dong, 53% are not equipped with a shower. Buildings with 16-17 residents have 2.6 toilets on average and among them a third are pit toilets. The monthly rent for the majority of shanties rises every year even though there is no improvement in facilities. The average monthly rent for one of these jjokbang or cubicle homes in Seoul was 233,000 won in 2019. The rent per square meter is more expensive than houses in Gangnam, Seoul.

A jjokbangchon in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul. Kyunghyang Shinmun Archives

There were attempts to provide the people with more stable housing by stabilizing the rent and improving the residential environment in these slums. The Dongja-dong New Dream House, which the Seoul metropolitan government operated from 2013 to 2019, was a project that rented out affordable shanties, but the result was insignificant. While the project was running, residents were able to extend their lease once. Then the residents were all evicted after the landlord notified them that the contract had ended. In South Korea, where there is a vast gap in the power relations of the landlord and the tenant, the project had its limitations, for the city provided funds to privately owned buildings instead of running the project with buildings the city owned. The project also lacked a channel for residents to voice their opinions and acquire information. Residents were nervous whenever they received an occasional notice that the owner of another shanty was going to make repairs to improve the living environment. Renovation meant the same thing as an eviction. When a building becomes safe and clean, it is no longer a place where people who need cheap housing, people who need to continue to live there, can no longer go.

Yi Jae-im, an activist with the Korean People’s Solidarity Against Poverty. Courtesy of the Climate Strike

Recently the word renovation, more commonly referred to as remodeling in Korea, can be heard everywhere. The 2050 Carbon Neutral Policy that the government released includes a plan to expand incentives for green remodeling projects and zero-energy buildings. Business newspapers quickly introduced development plans attached with the modifier “green” and excited forecasts. People began making suggestions to change urban buildings and the urban automobile. Who will live in such a changed city? The rent continues to rise every year without any improvement to homes as if it is the natural flow of things. People are constantly evicted from their homes under the name of development. And there are still storeowners who get kicked out of buildings under the excuse of renovation. If there is no idea that can reverse this reality, green remodeling will only end up as an aid for suppliers. Housing and the climate crisis are inseparable. This is why housing rights should be the starting point of our response to the climate crisis.

In the summer of 2021, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the jjokbangchon in Yang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul to inspect the city’s measures against the heatwave. Yang-dong, where a private development project is scheduled, was dreary with the entrance of the building blocked. The notice said that it was closed for safety inspections, but this is actually a tactic used by landlords to avoid paying compensations to tenants ahead of a development project. After examining the heatwave shelter, basically a tent, the mayor headed straight for the cheap shanties run by the city. A resident there said, “The landlord told me to get out by December. Where can I go? Time is running out!” “Time is running out” is a sentence that always appears in connection to our response to the climate crisis, but some voices are missing. The urgency in the proposition of climate action and the urgency among those referred to as the victims of the climate crisis are too different. We need to more urgently and more specifically respond to the climate crisis, reflecting the voices of the poor, the evicted.

The Seoul mayor’s heatwave inspection of the slums ended with him spraying an alley with water from a fire hydrant. I wonder how much the temperature in the jjokbangchon dropped after that. It was clear that the heat was rising above the heads of the jjokbangchon residents, who eventually failed to get an answer.

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