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[Robert J. Fouser] Reducing abandoned houses in old neighborhoods

Last week, I visited a friend living on top of a steep hill in Seongbuk-dong. The house had a sweeping view of the entire center of the city and of the rest of the neighborhood below. As we talked about the view and the neighborhood, my friend said that many of the houses in the area were empty. He said that the area was slated for redevelopment and that many houses are not rentable because they are in such bad condition. Plans for redevelopment have stalled and property owners are left with houses that they cannot sell or rent because few people want to live in the neighborhood.

The hillside neighborhood in Seongbuk-dong is not the only neighborhood in Korea with lots of abandoned houses. Many, if not most, older neighborhoods in major cities across the country have similar problems. The prospect of redevelopment into apartments attracted investors who viewed the property as a real estate investment rather than a place to live. To maximize their profit, they did only enough maintenance to attract tenants. As lifestyles changed and houses deteriorated, tenants became scarce and properties were left to rot.

The other large group of property owners is long-term residents, nearly all of whom are elderly now. Like the investors, many of them looked forward to redevelopment as a way to increase their children’s inheritance. Selling and moving to a more convenient area is an option, but the prospects of selling are dim, so they remain, holding out for redevelopment. Still others fear that they will not get enough out of their house to move to a more convenient place.

These are difficult issues for policy makers to address. As the big boom in real estate slowed in the 2010s, the redevelopment boom slowed with it. Height and other restrictions in older areas made it more difficult to make a profit off redevelopment as the increase in expected values of apartments slowed. Construction of cheaper apartments farther from city centers attracted buyers away. As the wait for redevelopment dragged on, the housing stock continued to deteriorate.

To deal with the problem, policymakers need to focus on stimulating market forces to increase the supply of affordable housing in central areas of Seoul and other cities. Housing in Seoul is expensive, particularly for young people. Some young people, particularly men, delay marriage and children because they will not be to provide housing for their family.

Increasing the supply of affordable housing would benefit young people most, but prevailing social attitudes make it difficult for them to move to run-down old neighborhoods. They want an apartment, not a house on a hill, because apartments are convenient and, more importantly, what society recommends.

In recent years, policymakers have tried to stimulate “urban regeneration” through various projects to make old neighborhoods more attractive and livable. In the early stages, many projects focused on painting murals to brighten up those areas and attract tourists, but recent efforts have focused on setting up centers that address the concerns of residents. Investment in public infrastructure, such as railings on stairs, crime surveillance cameras, fire extinguishers in alleys, has also increased.

Though laudable, these efforts are clearly not enough because, as the hillside neighborhood in Seongbuk-dong shows, many neighborhoods have seen little or no “regeneration.” One important step would be to force non-resident owners to make a choice: return abandoned houses to a livable condition or tear them down. Either choice would end up costing owners money, which might encourage them to sell to younger people looking for cheap housing. Some would choose remodeling, which would increase the supply of housing. Tearing down abandoned houses reduces blight and prepares the way for new construction.

Direct grants to resident home owners would help improve the quality of the residents and the housing stock. The most pressing need of residents in many old neighborhoods is roof repairs and basic infrastructure, such as gas lines. Such home improvements would also help to stimulate the neighborhood economy.

None of this will produce an overnight rush to move to Seongbuk-dong. If houses in older central areas are half or a third of the price of an older, dour apartment, then more young people will take notice. Over time, the trickle of interest could become a flow that will turn these areas into a socially acceptable choice. Policy makers will then be able to claim victory over abandoned houses, leaving them free to focus on other urban issues.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.