Seoul thinks basement apartments have to go
The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced Wednesday it will no longer give permits to construct basement or semi-basement homes in the capital after torrential rainfall and flooding this week highlighted the vulnerabilities of such humble abodes.
The city wants to eliminate such subterranean homes, usually inhabited by low-income families with no better options, within the next two decades.
This comes after the tragic death of three members of a family of four who lived in a semi-basement apartment in Sillim-dong, Gwanak District, southern Seoul, after flooding from heavy rainfall Monday.
A 47-year-old woman, her 13-year-old daughter and her elder sister with a developmental disability drowned when water flooded their unit and prevented an escape from their unit. Rescue workers arrived too late. The fourth member of the family, the woman's elderly mother, survived because she checked into a hospital earlier Monday.
A woman in her 50s who lived in a semi-underground apartment in Sangdo-dong, Dongjak District, southern Seuol, also died after rainwater poured into the residence on Monday.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon accompanied President Yoon Suk-yeol to inspect the Sillim-dong semi-basement unit on Tuesday.
The city government said Wednesday it will discuss with the government a revision to the Building Act to prohibit construction permits allowing basements and semi-basements to be used for residential purposes in the future.
The city government plans to give a grace period of up to 20 years to owners of existing basement or semi-basement houses and offer them incentives to convert them into non-residential use.
Seoul city plans to instruct its 25 district offices this week not to give construction permission for new semi-basement houses.
One such banjiha, or semi-basement apartment, was featured in the internationally-acclaimed 2019 Korean film "Parasite" to visually represent the class divide.
Because they are half-underground, water can easily flow into windows and prevent an escape, as was the tragic case with the Sillim-dong family.
But semi-basement homes are needed by people who can't afford better types of apartments in Seoul.
There were some 327,000 basement or semi-basement residences in the country as of 2020, according to Statistics Korea, or 1.5 percent of the total of 20,927,000 residences
In Seoul, a total of 200,000 households live in basement or semi-basement homes, or 5 percent of the total. Gwanak District has the highest number with 20,000 such homes.
The number of semi-basement homes in Seoul is down from 300,000 households in 2010.
Analysts point out that while phasing out semi-basement homes is a good notion, the government needs to come up with feasible alternatives.
Mr. Yoon, a temporary worker in his 50s, is a resident of a semi-basement house in Sillim-dong.
He earns about 2 million won ($1,536) a month and was drying out his wet furniture on Thursday following flooding in the neighborhood.
He has been living the semi-basement home for the past three years. He paid a deposit of 10 million won and pays monthly rent of 400,000 won, he told the JoongAng Ilbo.
"It's not so easy to move into public rental housing, and people like us sigh when we are told to leave semi-basement homes, which we still find livable," Yoon said.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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