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Hazardous Underground Public Housing

Posted November. 30, 2005 07:19,   


“Since we moved to a flat below ground level, we hardly ever see the sun. It may be the stuffy air in the house, but my child is suffering from atopic dermatitis, and my wife from a never-ending flu. What can we do when we have no money?” lamented Park Byung-hwa, aged 45, a day laborer who moved into a subterranean unit in a multiple-household rental housing in Gangseo District of Seoul a few months ago.

As in his case, 32 percent of the multi-family rental houses appropriated by a pilot project the government launched last September have turned out to be subterranean or semi-subterranean. Such houses below the ground level have poor living conditions with little ventilation or sunlight, and have a high risk of being flooded in the summer rainy season.

Taking such problems into account, Seoul City has decided to go against the central government’s policy to expand multiple-household rental houses, and sell off the city’s share of the houses to the private sector.

This was brought to light in the Seoul Metropolitan government’s administrative audit data and the Ministry of Construction and Transportation’s (MOCT) report: “Review of Multiple-Household Houses for Rental” obtained exclusively by Dong-A Ilbo.

1 Out of 3 Rental Flats Are Below Ground-

To allow low-income families to live in downtown areas, the MOCT spent approximately 35.2 billion won last year buying 503 units in 75 blocks of multiple-household houses located in five of Seoul’s districts: Gangseo, Gwanak, Nowon, Yeongdeungpo and Jungnang. Out of these, subterranean flats account for 32 percent, or 161 of the units.

In contrast, although the Seoul Metropolitan government purchased 1,251 units of multi-family rental housing between 2002 and 2003, it made a recent decision to sell them all off.

Bad Ventilation and Dismal Living Conditions-

The trouble is that subterranean units cause a threat to the tenants’ health because of poor ventilation and high humidity.

The dampness spreading from the floor and moisture gathering in the house drive up the humidity of subterranean units, and give rise to the possibility of many diseases, as a result of thriving germs and molds.

A study by Korea Center for City and Environment Research carried out for the ten months since last May on behalf of the Korea National Housing Corporation revealed that the concentration of noxious substances was higher than expected in the 30 subterranean households surveyed in Seoul and Gyeonggi areas.

The average concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as toluene or benzene recorded 1,208μg per cubic meter, and germs in the air were recorded at 1,859CFU per cubic meter. These figures are 2.3 to 2.4 times higher than the levels recommended by the Ministry of Environment (500μg and 800CFU per cubic meter, respectively).

The survey targeted multi-family houses more than 15 to 20 years old.

The center analyzed that VOC, normally emitted in newly built houses, were found in old subterranean units because of either new furniture and electronics, or noxious materials that came in on people’s clothes but were not ventilated properly.

VOC are known to cause skin and respiratory illnesses as well as headaches, and breathing in germs in the air may lead to dermatitis or vomiting.

The Government’s Response-

The MOCT plans to acquire a total of 50,000 rental housing by 2015 by making an annual purchase of about 4,500 units. It has no measures as yet, however, to deal with the dismal conditions in rental subterranean flats.

“Multi-family rental housing only charges 30 to 50 percent of the normal rent to allow low-income families to live in downtown,” said one related official from the Ministry. “If subterranean flats are included in the large number of multiple-household units being rented out, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Millennium Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Nak-yeon, a member of the National Assembly’s Construction and Transportation Committee, declared, “The large proportion of subterranean units in multi-family housing is the result of bureaucratic attitudes that didn’t take the living conditions of the poor into account.” He emphasized that “subterranean flats must be changed into public-use space such as warehouses, and not used for residential homes.”

Tae-Hun Hwang Soo-Jung Shin beetlez@donga.com crystal@donga.com