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[Editorial] Homes that people want

Supply of public rental houses must be auxiliary to private-sector housing policy

President Moon Jae-in’s remarks on public rental homes are infuriating people.

Moon, accompanied by Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee and Land Minister nominee Byeon Chang-heum, inspected a public rental apartment complex in the Dongtan area of Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, Friday.

Looking around the interior of a 44-square-meter two-room unit, Byeon said a family of four could live there together. Then Moon said: “This is the standard size for a newlywed couple and a child. And it looks possible even for a couple to live with two children if they are little kids.”

Byeon replied, “Yes.”

Shortly after news media reported Moon’s remarks, criticism from the public and opposition lawmakers poured in: “Moon is too ignorant of public sentiment about real estate,” “The home in the photo looks tightly packed with just three people,” “They tell people to live in rental homes while none of them want to,” “Moon seems unqualified to say so, considering that he is scheduled to live in his 240-square-meter private residence after retirement,” and so on.

One person filed a sneering petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website requesting that Moon’s post-retirement residence be limited to about 20 square meters.

As blame cascaded on Moon, his spokesman said the president had only “asked a question.” Cheong Wa Dae means that Moon never said the unit was sufficient for a family of four, but simply asked Byeon if it was. This reply shifted the blame to the media, which it said released “fake news.”

But the argument that Moon’s quote was a question is less convincing in light of the context of the dialogue. Moon appears to have chimed in with Byeon.

The point of the issue is neither whether a 44-square-meter apartment unit is spacious enough for a family of four nor the size of Moon’s private residence after he retires.

The problem is that the government is focusing on public rental housing to stabilize housing prices, though most people want to live in homes they own.

Moon vowed to ensure nonhomeowners freedom from anxiety about finding a dwelling by expanding the supply of public rental housing. He vowed to push a plan to build 2.4 million public rental homes by 2025 and even allow middle-class people to live in public rental homes.

Byeon, CEO of Korea Land & Housing Corp., which constructs public rental apartments, is a leading proponent of “public homes.” He is said to be negative toward the private sector profiting from real estate development.

Of course, public rental homes are needed for people in the low-income bracket. It is the government’s job to increase the supply.

But public rental homes must not be the entirety of its housing supply policy. The private sector, not the government, must lead the housing supply. Public rental homes should be supplied as an auxiliary means to complement the market.

What people want is to live in their own homes. The government cannot curb home and rental prices by telling people to just reside in public homes without owning them.

The government may raise the quality of public rental homes to some extent by spending more tax. But people naturally dream of living in better residences and a better environment. Most South Koreans seek homeownership as a very important means of investment. It is impossible for rental homes to satisfy this need.

Regardless of those desires, however, the president and his administration tout public rental homes to the people while looking away from the supply of private-sector apartments. So, people pour out their anger.

If public rental homes are so good, would it not be persuasive for the land minister and her successor to set an example by selling their own apartments and moving in there?

It is questionable if the government can really supply as many as 2.4 million public rental apartment units by 2025, but above all, that is not the solution that people want.

Nearly 1 in 4 units in the public rental apartment complex that Moon visited is said to be empty because of a shortage of applicants. That is the reality.