08/17/2022, 10.20
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Seoul, flood deaths turn spotlight back on basement people

by Guido Alberto Casanova

A large proportion of the victims lived in "banjiha," the basements where the film "Parasite" is set, the only affordable housing solutions for 5 percent of the population. The local government promises a plan to empty them, but without saying where it would settle the more than 200,000 families who currently  reside there.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - The amount of water that poured onto the South Korean capital and surrounding areas last week broke a 100 year record. Between Monday and Wednesday, 525 mm of rain fell on Seoul, far exceeding the amount of rain usually recorded in a month in just a few hours, according to the National Meteorological Agency. The search for the missing is still ongoing, but the exceptional rainfall that sumerged the capital has already resulted in eight confirmed deaths, four of which occurred in the infamous basement apartments. Trapped in their homes by the roaring water, the victims drowned before help could reach them.

These basement apartments (called "banjiha" in Korean) are the everyday reality for many lower-class South Koreans, such as those depicted in the famous film "Parasite." The low relative cost of these dwellings makes them affordable solutions in a city where real estate prices are unaffordable for many. About 62 percent of all South Korean banjiha are concentrated in the capital, where 200,849 households live in such apartments, according to data reported by the South Korea Bureau of Statistics: this is about 5 percent of Seoul's population.

After last week's torrential rains and drowning deaths, a chorus of critical voices has risen from civil society against the banjiha. "We condemn the government's neglect of those marginalized by this tragedy: as the rains become more intense and more frequent under the influence of climate change, a fundamental change needs to be undertaken to its approach to the residents of these basement apartments," said Citizens Coalitions for Economic Justice. The activist group calls on the government to help banjiha residents move to safer housing solutions and advocates the need to expand the supply of public housing.

Under pressure, the capital's administration has announced measures to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Mayor Oh Se-hoon said no more construction projects involving banjiha will be approved: to do so, the city of Seoul will pressure the government to revise building regulations that allow the construction of basement apartments. Meanwhile, the city government has promised to help relocate current residents to other housing over the next 10 to 20 years.

The plan, however, has attracted no small amount of skepticism and is seen by many as merely a statement not to show inaction and save face. "What do you expect people to do? We live here because it's cheaper," Sohn Mal-nyeon, a 70-year-old woman who lives in a banjiha not far from where one of the four victims drowned, told The Korea Herald. It's hard to blame her, since other than the announcement, the Seoul government has yet to provide details on how the relocation of residents should work. Where should they go? What compensation will be provided? How will the plan be put into practice? A regulation against banjiha was already passed 10 years ago, but evidently the problem still remains to be solved

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