Seoul moves to ban cramped basement flats after flood deaths

South Korean capital will stop issuing permits to build basement flats after four people drowned by floodwater trapped in their home.

Seoul flood
Vehicles get partly submerged at a flooded parking lot during heavy rain in Seoul, South Korea, August 8, 2022 [File: Yonhap/Reuters]

Authorities in Seoul are moving to ban the typically cramped basement flats in the South Korean capital, after several people drowned during flooding caused by record-breaking rains.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said on Thursday it was planning to get rid of the tiny subterranean dwellings – known as “banjiha” and featured in the Oscar-winning film Parasite – which are typically cheap to rent but prone to damp and flooding.

The local government said it would stop issuing permits to construct such homes, while pushing to gradually phase out existing basement and semi-basement flats.

The city plans to begin discussions with the national government to ban the use of basements or semi-basement spaces for residential purposes, it added.

Some 200,000 households live in such flats, which make up about 5 percent of housing stock in Seoul, according to official figures.

A bridge is submerged by torrential rain of the previous day at Han river in Seoul, South Korea, August 9, 2022
A bridge is submerged by torrential rain of the previous day at Han River in Seoul, South Korea, August 9, 2022 [File: Yonhap/Reuters]

Four out of 11 people killed in this week’s downpours – the heaviest in more than 100 years – drowned after their basement flats were inundated with floodwater, officials said.

The deaths – including of a disabled woman and a teenager, who were trapped by floodwater in their basement apartment – have caused public outrage.

President Yoon Suk-yeol visited their destroyed home this week, before calling on officials to do more to help the poor and vulnerable during natural disasters.

The banjiha received global attention due to Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which won the 2020 Best Picture Oscar and features a poor family living in such a basement home.

Activists blamed the deaths on the government’s housing policies, saying they were preventable disasters.

“We condemn the government’s negligence regarding those marginalised people in this housing,” said the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice in a statement.

People wade through an inundated road in southern Seoul as heavy rainfall of more than 100mm per hour battered the city and surrounding areas [File: Yonhap/EPA-EFE/South Korea Out]

“As rainfall becomes stronger and more frequent under the influence of climate change, [Seoul] must embark on a fundamental change of its approach to basement residents,” it added.

Yoon has also blamed climate change for the rains and flooding, which he said were the worst since weather records began more than a century ago.

“Those who struggle financially or with physical difficulties are bound to be more vulnerable to natural disasters,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies