South Korea’s capital Seoul has announced a phase-out of semi-basement flats after 13 people died during flooding earlier this week, and three died stranded in such homes. The country witnessed record rainfall this week, the heaviest in 80 years, resulting in severe flooding and damage to public and private property.
These semi-basement homes gained prominence following the release of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 movie ‘Parasite’, that depicted the lives of people in a low-income family who had been compelled by their socio-economic circumstances to live in a semi-basement home in Seoul, called ‘banjiha’ in Korean.
What are these semi-basement homes?
According to a CNN report, banjihas were first built in the 1970s to serve as bunkers as tensions between South Korea and North Korea increased. Although these spaces had not been built for residential purposes, that changed when Seoul grew as a metropolis over the following decades to accommodate the inflow of migrant workers.
The unsuitability of these banjihas for residential purposes is apparent in how their occupants are constantly battling problems like inadequate ventilation, drainage, mould, lack of sunlight etc, some of which were also depicted in ‘Parasite’. The spaces are extremely cramped, though they sometimes also accommodate families.
But the demand for these types of accommodation have grown because of how unaffordable Seoul’s real estate has become, particularly for the young, working class. During the last elections, unaffordable housing as a critical election issue.
According to a Reuters report from March this year, just before the elections, the average price of an apartment in Seoul more than doubled in the past five years to $963,000, making it less affordable than cities like New York, Tokyo and Singapore, relative to income. In contrast, the monthly rent for a banjiha would be around $450, making it relatively more affordable for salaried workers in their 20s earning a monthly salary of around $1,700.
But although the rents are cheap, the banjihas come attached with social stigma, one that its residents are conscious of, and ‘Parasite’ highlights this stigma and its associated problems.
Is this a new problem?
Conversations around safety concerns of banjihas came up in 2010 as well as in 2011, during periods of extreme flooding, with the government implementing laws and promising to prohibit banjihas in areas prone to extreme flooding.
However, according to a report by The Korea Herald newspaper, instead of tackling the issue, tens of thousands banjihas were built after the law passed, due to loopholes in local laws.
When Parasite was released, it once again brought banjihas to the fore, this time with widespread international attention. But just weeks later, restrictions brought on due to Covid-19 meant that the government stopped paying any attention to its plans for the semi-basement style homes.
What does Seoul plan to do about it?
This past week, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol visited the flooded semi-basement house in Seoul where a family had died from flooding, a move for which he received some criticism after photos were released. A report by The Korea Herald indicated that Seoul is planning to phase out these types of homes, without concrete plans about rehabilitation of its occupants.
According to CNN, which cited a government statement, the process of phasing out of banjihas “will include a “grace period” of 10 to 20 years for existing banjihas with building permits, and tenants will be helped to move into public rental housing, or receive housing vouchers”. Following the rehabilitation, the government plans on putting the banjihas to non-residential use.