If Bad Food Is Unacceptable, Why Isn’t Bad Housing?
“Listen to Our Voices” ② Youth Housing Insecurity
Jisu   |   2024-02-02

There are far too many real estate listings that barely pass for housing.


I’m an activist in the civic organization Min Snail Union. I counsel and educate youth about housing, let them know the indispensable commonsense A to Zs when looking for a place to live, give talks on preventing and responding to conflicts with real estate agencies and landlords, and conduct site visits for youth facing problems with their housing.


▲ Summer 2021. A photo taken during a Min Snail Union survey of a Seoul university-area residential neighborhood. Some may say they are sick and tired of the “hell trifecta” of basement apartments, rooftop rooms, and gosiwons (complexes of very small single rooms with shared kitchens and often shared bathroom facilities), but these three types of residences remain important for youth housing. When young people move out on their own for the first time, many start with substandard housing and move on to more of the same. ©Minsnail Union

Houses That Aren’t Homes


One young person got a complaint from their next-door neighbor for doing yoga at home. The reason was the sound of their breathing was too loud. Being able to hear coughing and talking from next door is an all-too-familiar story for young people living in crowded one-person housing areas.  


These kinds of houses are highly likely to be structures illegally split into rental rooms. Also referred to as “illegal structures,” I will simply call these houses “bad housing” [bullyang jugeo], for the purpose of comparing them with bad food. There are regulations for people selling bad food, but there are none for those listing or brokering bad housing. People can’t sell moldy food, but there’s nothing stopping them from selling moldy houses.


In this kind of environment, there are too many houses infested with mold and lacking insulation from cold, heat, and noise. Despite these issues, following the housing market’s sharply rising price curve, poor-quality housing is also becoming more expensive. Too many houses that can hardly be called houses are being built, and the rental market leaves them as is, citing them as a necessary evil and a customary practice.


Every time Min Snail Union activists go out to survey illegal housing structures, we joke that “four out of five studio apartment buildings break the law.” In fact, during a 2020 sample survey of special administrative regions, more than 78% of houses were found to be in violation of housing laws. However, due to a lack of administrative personnel and budget, these areas do not all face crackdowns. Taken as a matter of course in the market and protected by government, substandard housing currently remains the only option for those who can only pay a small amount for housing.


Not only is the environment in this housing bad, but its financial situation is also unstable. There are many places that are turned down for rental deposit payment protection insurance, but no other safety measures are being put in place. Even though the housing rental market is rightfully called a lawless area, the situation continues to prevail.


▲ Minsnail Union is acting in solidarity with the 2022 Presidential Election Youth Network. We are participating in the campaign of writing remarks aimed at the presidential candidates and uploading them on social media. ©Jisu

Housing Insecurity of Young Women Living Alone in Rental Housing


There are those who can’t even choose poor substandard housing. In South Korea, where bad food is unacceptable but bad housing is tolerated, there is no language to pinpoint the housing insecurity of youth who can’t even make this choice. I will discuss this through the lens of “housing safety,” the phrase everyone is using these days.


When youth need and desire to live on their own due to conflict with their families but can’t get a gosiwon room or studio apartment, the main reasons are housing cost and safety, connected like needle and thread. Most of those with no advance money who can only afford a low deposit and rent have no choice but to live in very bad housing environments, which is linked with the issue of safety. Gender is also a big limiting factor for those who fail to make their longing to live on their own a reality.          


In the current housing rental market, some real estate agencies tell prospective young female tenants, “Anyway, young women don’t go for dirty, half-basement, unsafe places, so there’s no need to show you those,” effectively standardizing a price hike.


There are also many cases in which women feel unsafe in privately rented single and multi-family housing units because of the lack of a security window grille, and although the landlord refuses to install one, the tenant is unable to use this as a reason to break the lease. Furthermore, cases of rudeness and discriminatory situations such as the uncomfortable atmosphere in common areas that women with short haircuts can face while living in gosiwons [due to male tenants who take the hairstyle to be a sign of feminism, which they hate] or, or women being pestered with offers to be set up on blind dates, also fall under “housing insecurity.”


Yet this kind of housing insecurity faced by young women tenants has always been ignored by housing policies.


Stalking, Burglary, and Other Crimes as a “Housing Safety” Issue


MinSnail Union is also calling for countermeasures and housing policy to address crimes committed in residential areas such as stalking and burglary.


▲ Fall 2021. A press conference on crimes in residential areas, held jointly with Justice Party National Assembly member Jang Hye-young. ©MinSnail Union

Although South Korea’s “minimum housing standards” clearly specify the minimal criteria for housing, their scope is very narrow. Set by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, the minimum housing standards merely state that the living area for one person, including a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom, must be at least 14 square meters (4.2 pyeong). That’s it. But gosiwons and other “non-housing dwellings” are exempt even from that. With the creation of this exception to the minimum housing standard in order to increase the urban housing supply, South Korean society has sided with private businesses to make even more housing substandard.  


The Basic Housing Act enacted in 2015 clearly states that housing must maintain minimum standards of appropriateness according to changing socioeconomic conditions, and the government must create inducive housing standards and strive to reduce the number of households not meeting the criteria. However, there has yet to be any announcement of inducive housing standards.


Given the extremely loose state of minimum housing standards, the safety problem is more easily neglected. Even while many people say that in terms of safety, housing policy should go beyond services that ensure women can walk home safely [such as the “Safe Back Home Scouts” program described here], the reason for the continued policy limits is exactly the fact that the standard for proper housing is so narrowly regulated. 


Considering social circumstances, in order to figure out safety issues implicated within the housing environment, the minimum housing standards must be reformed. Not only structural and sanitation issues but also safety problems must be taken into account, and crimes such as stalking, burglary and the resulting anxiety faced by residents are essential elements that must be included in all housing surveys.    


Upgrade the Minimum Housing Standard and Secure Livable Housing


There are very few presidential candidates addressing the issue of reforming the minimum housing standards. Now is the time for us to ask of the candidates: What do you consider livable housing, and with so many bad residences flying under the radar, how will you find and change them?


The minimum housing standards provision needs to be sharply expanded. Basically, we need to improve the standards to ensure that housing meets structural requirements and is functional in terms of sanitation and safety. In addition, considering the increasingly diverse types of housing, standards should be set that can be applied to other places of residence, such as gosiwons. It is also necessary to improve the system to systematically establish housing support policies for tenants who are already living in substandard housing.


In order to create a society where everyone can live independently in adequate housing, we need to change bad housing conditions and define housing safety as a major factor in housing insecurity, and reflect these goals in policies to achieve change. I wonder how many of the presidential candidates have heard the stories about these problems. I hope they will listen to the voices of those of us who live in bad housing and whose housing security is being violated. Because our lives don't disappear when they turn a blind eye to us, or erase us from print.


*Writer Bio: Jisu thinks a lot about living a long time in a nice, livable house with her cat. She wants to fight against all the discrimination that happens related to housing. 


Translated by Anastasia Traynin

*Original article: https://ildaro.com/9239

Published Jan. 3, 2022


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

기사입력 : 2024-02-02

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