Seoul vows to evacuate families from ‘parasite’-style basement homes after flood deaths

The deaths, which included a family who drowned after being trapped underground, have prompted the South Korean capital to end people living in “banjiha” houses — the often cramped and dirty basement apartments made famous by the movie “Parasite.”

A family of three — a woman in her 40s with Down syndrome, her sister and sister’s 13-year-old daughter — died after water pressure in Seoul’s southern Gwanak district left them unable to open the doors of their flooded home.

On Monday night, torrential rains — the city’s heaviest in more than 100 years — caused severe flooding in many low-lying neighborhoods south of the Han River, sweeping away cars and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Often prone to mold in short, dark and humid summers, banjihas gained global notoriety following the release of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 film “Parasite,” which followed a fictional family’s desperate attempt to escape poverty. These homes represent rampant inequality in the world’s wealthiest cities.

For years, calls have grown for the government to provide more affordable housing, improve living conditions in banjihas or eliminate them altogether — as President Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to follow up on public outcry over his handling of the crisis.

“In the future, in Seoul, basements and semi-basements (bunjihas) will not be allowed to be used for residential purposes,” the Seoul city government said in a statement Wednesday.

However, experts say the government’s promise overlooks bigger problems beyond basement walls, with soaring living costs forcing the most vulnerable to seek shelter in substandard housing vulnerable to flooding and heat — some of the worst effects of climate change.

Bunkers to boom

Banjihas were first built in the 1970s to serve as bunkers amid rising tensions with North Korea, said Choi Eun-yong, executive director of the Korea Center for City and Environment Research.

As Seoul modernized over the next decade, attracting immigrants from rural areas, shrinking space prompted the government to allow basements for residential use — they were “not built for residential purposes, but for air raid shelters, boiler rooms or warehouses,” Choi said.

Banjihas have long suffered from problems such as poor ventilation and drainage, water leakage, lack of easy escape routes, insect infestation and exposure to bacteria. But their low prices are a major draw as Seoul remains largely unaffordable — especially for young people facing stagnant wages, rising rents and a saturated job market.

A woman scoops water from a flooded basement apartment in Seoul, South Korea, on August 10.
The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years, reaching 1.26 billion won ($963,000) in January this year — making it less affordable compared to incomes in New York, Tokyo and Singapore.

Safety concerns regarding banjihas were brought to the fore when severe floods in 2010 and 2011 killed dozens of people. In 2012, the government enacted new laws banning banjiha apartments in “routinely flooded areas”.

But the reform effort fell short, with 40,000 additional banjihas built after the law took effect, according to a news release from city officials.

At least 9 people have died after record rainfall in Seoul flooded buildings and submerged cars

Officials vowed to investigate the problem again after drawing attention to “parasitic” banjihas — but they were soon hampered 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 its failure to improve housing, the city government has come under fire this year after cutting its annual budget for flood control and water resource management by 15% to more than 17.6 billion won ($13.5 million).

The family was overwhelmed

Choi Tae-young, chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters, said the family who died in Gwanak could not escape their apartment because water was standing outside their door.

Fire and rescue chiefs accompanied President Yoon to the scene of the death on Tuesday, where they 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 earlier,” Yoon said during the inspection – which was widely criticized online.

South Korean President Eun Suk-yeol visits a flooded semi-basement in Gwanak, Seoul on August 10, where a family died in the flood.

“The water came in a moment,” replied a resident.

“It took less than 10 or 15 minutes (for the water to rise),” another resident said, adding that the victims “lived a very difficult 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 them, regardless of whether they are normal flood or flood-prone areas.”

Banjihas are “a backward housing type that threatens the housing-vulnerable in all aspects, including safety and housing environment, and must be eliminated now,” said Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

The elimination process will include a 10- to 20-year “grace period” for existing banjihas with building permits and help tenants move into public rental housing or receive housing vouchers, the government said in a statement. Once the banjihas are cleared, they will be converted for non-residential use, it added.

South Korean President Eun Suk-yeol visits a flooded semi-basement apartment in Gwanak, Seoul on August 10.

Choi Eun-yong, an urban environmental researcher, is skeptical On the government’s purported commitment to eliminate banjihas, they argued that the proposal was overly ambitious and lacked specific details such as timelines or compensation figures.

“Actually, I think it’s likely to be just a declaration and not implemented,” he said, pointing to the government’s various promises — and limited success — over the years.

The poor were hit hardest

Rain has eased in Seoul now — but experts warn that extreme, unpredictable weather like this will become more frequent and severe because of climate change.

The climate crisis is “increasing the temperature of land and ocean, which means the amount of water vapor that the air can hold is getting bigger,” said Park Jung-min, deputy director of the press office of the Korea Meteorological Administration. “It depends on the weather, where this bag of water pours.”

Soldiers remove debris from a flooded house in Seoul, South Korea, on August 10.

As is often the case, the poor seem to 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. “Only when they are safe, will the Republic of Korea be safe.”

Similar problems have occurred in other countries in recent years; In parts of India, monsoon floods have repeatedly destroyed slums; In Bangladesh, many people have migrated from villages to urban areas to escape the rising floods.
And in the United States, research has found that black, Latino and low-income households are more likely to live in flood-prone areas.
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Apart from prolonged displacement and disrupted livelihoods, the expected increase in rainfall across Asia could bring health risks, including increased risk of diarrheal diseases, dengue fever and malaria – a further blow to already impoverished families without access to medical care or resources. to relocate.

Meanwhile, floods and droughts can lead to rural poverty and rising food costs, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In Seoul, Banjiha residents face the twin dangers of flooding and heat waves, Choi Eun-yong said.

“The changes caused by the climate crisis are almost catastrophic, especially for the most vulnerable, because they do not have the proper housing to respond to those conditions,” he said.

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