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Seoul City to phase out semi-basements as dwellings

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This photo shows the semi-basement flat where a family of three was trapped and killed by flooding due to the torrential rainfall, Sillim-dong, Gwanak District, Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap
This photo shows the semi-basement flat where a family of three was trapped and killed by flooding due to the torrential rainfall, Sillim-dong, Gwanak District, Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Lee Hyo-jin

The Seoul Metropolitan Government is planning to phase out the use of semi-basements as dwellings as a number of people living in semi-basement flats were killed when Seoul was hit with torrential rains and flooding, underscoring the vulnerability of those in poor living conditions.

Seoul and its surrounding areas were pounded with record-breaking rainfall for two straight days from Monday, before the rains moved to other parts of the country, resulting in 10 dead and 8 missing, as well as major damage to thousands of homes, shops, cars and farmland, so far.

A family of three living in Sillim-dong, Gwanak District of Seoul was found dead in their semi-basement home after becoming trapped there when water gushed down into the flat through a sinkhole in the adjacent road.

A 50-something woman living with her mother in a semi-basement flat in Sangdo-dong, Dongjak District, was also killed in the flood. The two initially managed to escape from their home, but the younger woman later drowned after she returned to rescue her pet cat, according to the police.

These tragic incidents have highlighted the need to protect those in vulnerable living conditions.

Semi-basement ("banjiha" in Korean) flats, refer to homes that are built halfway below ground level. Originally required to be built in each building in the 1960s as air-raid shelters, in the 1970s, the building code was amended and the spaces became an affordable housing option for low-income urban dwellers. With minimal light and airflow through small windows, the often damp and moldy homes are especially prone to damage in floods.

According to 2020 census data, 327,000 households were living in such flats across the country, accounting for 2 percent of the total households. Of them, the vast majority ― 96 percent ― were residing in Seoul and its surrounding areas.

After heavy rains in 2010, the Seoul Metropolitan Government, announced that it would restrict building permits to buildings with semi-basement housing, and since then, permits have been restricted to buildings with basement-level residential spaces that face concerns of flooding.

Now, following this week's tragic deaths in semi-basement dwellings, Seoul city has announced that it will gradually phase out such housing.

The city government will consult with the central government to revise the Building Act, which regulates construction to semi-basement apartments for residential purposes.

It will also gradually encourage residents currently living in semi-basement flats to move out in the span of 10 to 20 years. Owners will be subsidized for remodeling or will be offered an option to sell the property to the city authorities.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport also vowed to come up with measures to better protect the vulnerable group.

"We will review fundamental measures to protect the safety and lives of people living in poor conditions," said land minister Won Hee-ryong on Tuesday during his visit to the neighborhood in Dongjak District where the 50-something woman died.

But some civic groups are critical that these moves are only a repeat of previous efforts that were to no avail. They have also expressed concern that the restrictions may further reduce housing options for low-income households.

"In order for them (residents living in semi-basement flats) to move out of their current homes, there has to be a sufficient supply of public rental housing. Also, the government should first conduct a large-scale investigation on their living conditions before introducing counter measures," Choi Eun-young, head of the Korea Center for City and Environment Research (KOCER), was quoted as saying during an interview with local radio TBS, Thursday.

Lee Hyo-jin


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