The deaths, including a family that drowned after becoming trapped underground, have prompted the South Korean capital to end people living in “banjiha” houses — the often cramped and dank basement apartments made famous by the movie “Parasite.”
A family of three – a woman in her 40s with Down’s syndrome, her sister and her sister’s 13-year-old daughter – died after water pressure prevented the door of their flooded home from opening in Seoul’s southern Gwanak district.
On Monday night, torrential rains — the city’s heaviest in more than 100 years — caused severe flooding in many low-lying areas south of the Han River, washed away cars and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.
Often prone to mold in short, dark and humid summers, Banjiha gained global fame after the release of Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” which follows a fictional family’s desperate attempt to escape poverty. Housing has since come to represent massive inequality in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
Over the years, the government has had to provide more affordable housing, improve living conditions in Banjiha, or close it altogether — something officials have vowed to do after public outcry over President Eun Suk Yeol’s crisis.
“In the future, in Seoul, basements and semi-basements (banjiha) will not be allowed to be used for residential purposes,” the Seoul city government said in a statement on Wednesday.
However, experts say the government’s promise ignores the bigger problems that persist beyond basement walls, with skyrocketing living costs that force the most vulnerable to seek shelter in substandard housing susceptible to flooding and heat – some of the worst effects of climate change.
Bunkers to boom
Choi Eun-yong, executive director of the Korea Center for City and Environment Research, said Banjiha was built in the 1970s to serve as a bunker amid rising tensions with North Korea.
As Seoul modernized over the next decade, attracting rural migrants, dwindling space prompted the government to allow the residential use of basements — even though they were “not built for residential purposes, but for air raid shelters, boiler rooms or warehouses,” Choi said.
Banjihas have long been plagued by problems such as poor ventilation and drainage, water leakage, lack of easy escape routes, pest infestation and bacterial exposure. But since Seoul isn’t more affordable, its low cost is a big draw — especially for young people who face stagnant wages, rising rents and a saturated job market.
In 2010 and 2011, when dozens of people died due to severe floods, security issues related to Banjiha came to the fore. In 2012, the government introduced new laws prohibiting banjiha apartments in “habitually flooded areas”.
But the reform effort fell short, with 40,000 additional banjihas being built after the law was passed, according to city officials.
After “Parasite” shed light on the banjihs, officials promised to investigate the case again — but were soon sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic, Choi said.
As of 2020, more than 200,000 Banjiha apartments remain In downtown Seoul — about 5% of all households, according to the National Statistics Office.
In addition to failing to improve housing, the city government came under fire this year for cutting the annual budget for flood control and water resources management by more than 15% to 17.6 billion won ($13.5 million).
The family drowned
Choi Tae-young, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters, said the family who died in Gwanak could not get out of their apartment due to water pooling outside their door.
The fire and rescue chief accompanied President Yun to the site of the death on Tuesday, where he inspected the building and interviewed some of its residents. Photos show the president sitting on the street, peering through a ground-level window into a still-flooded basement apartment.
“I don’t know why people here didn’t evacuate in advance,” Yoon said during the inspection — a comment that has drawn criticism online.
“The water came right away,” replied one resident.
“It took less than 10 or 15 minutes for the water to rise,” said another resident, adding that the victims “had a very, very hard life.”
In its statement on Wednesday, the Seoul city government said it would phase out basement and banjiha apartments “so that people cannot live in areas overlooking regular floods or flood-prone areas.”
Banjiha is a “backward housing type that threatens homes that are unsafe in all aspects, including safety and residential environment, and must be eliminated now,” Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said.
The elimination process will include a 10- to 20-year “grace period” for existing barrens with building permits and help tenants move into public rental housing or receive housing vouchers, the government said in a statement. After clearing the banjihas, they will be converted for non-residential use, it added.
Urban environment researcher Choi Eun-yong expressed skepticism As for the government’s alleged commitment to removing Banjiha, it was argued that the proposal was too ambitious and lacked concrete details such as details on timelines or compensation figures.
“In fact, I think there’s a very high probability that this will just be a declaration and not implemented,” she said, pointing to the government’s various promises – and limited success – over the years.
The poor are hit the hardest
Rain has now subsided in Seoul — but experts warn that this kind of extreme, unpredictable weather will become more frequent and severe due to climate change.
The climate crisis is “raising the temperature of the earth and ocean, which means the amount of water vapor that can be held in the air is increasing,” said Park Jung-min, deputy director of the Korea Meteorological Administration’s press office. “It depends on the weather where the water bag will pour.”
Often, it seems, the poorest will be among the worst hit.
“Those who have difficulty living and those who are physically ill are more vulnerable to natural disasters,” President Yoon said on Wednesday. “The Republic of Korea is only safe when they are safe.”
In addition to long-term displacement and disrupted livelihoods, the expected increase in rainfall across Asia could create a host of health risks, including the risk of diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria – another blow to already poor families without medical care or resources. to relocate.
In Seoul, Banjiha residents face the twin dangers of floods and heat waves, said Choi Eun-yeon.
“The changes caused by the climate crisis are almost catastrophic, especially for the most vulnerable people, because they don’t have adequate housing to respond to those conditions,” she said.