No Room for the PoorWith a longing to own her own home, Choi In-suk was in her early 20’s when she started working virtually around the clock as a maid and fruit vendor. By the mid-1970s, after toiling for over 10 years, she and her husband managed by combining their savings to realize their modest, hard-fought-for dream.
The couple bought a tiny residence in the Cheongun apartment complex, a low-income housing project sitting on a hillside a few minutes’ walk from the Blue House with a spectacular view of the city.
Ms. Choi’s new home was one of 577 units built in 1969 for poor families under the Park Chung Hee government, for which some of the residents performed menial jobs.
The status of the owners and residents of Cheongun changed little over the years. The majority held blue-collar jobs for decades, selling clothes in Dongdaemun market, cleaning others’ homes and laboring at construction sites.
As years passed, Korea’s economy boomed. High-priced villas and spacious private houses with the latest in architectural decor began to dot the hillside just below the apartments’ site. Located near the base of Mount Inwang, Cheongun’s panoramic view of central Seoul was a looking glass on the country’s development. Unfortunately, many Cheongun residents benefited little from the surging wealth. Indeed, they were left behind.
But Cheongun’s location in an affluent area carried benefits that made it a special place for poor families. The apartments were for the residents a kind of paradise.
“The air is clean, the view is unbelievable, it’s a good school district and there are no robberies because the apartments were close to the Blue House,” said Lee Myung-chul, a 54-year-old salesman. “There’s no other place [in Seoul] where poor people could come close to living in such an environment.”
Many children in the apartments also attended the most reputable schools in Seoul, such as Gyeongbok Boys’ High School and Baehwa Girls’ High School.
But all that has changed.
In recent weeks, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has demolished Ms. Choi’s home and the rest of the residences in Cheongun. The city says it plans to build a park in their place. Pulling down the cement blocks has taken a tremendous human toll.
The city government hired a construction company that the residents allege physically abused a number of owners, some of them elderly, who refused to accept government compensation for their eviction. A number refused to leave their former homes until they were all finally forced out late last month. The holdouts had been living essentially in ruins. Months and years before, work crews had broken holes in the roofs of the buildings with sledge hammers, allowing rain to pour in. Utilities were largely cut off. Some elderly say they had to sleep outside because of flooding.
One of the city government’s justifications for demolishing the low-income housing project stems from a safety inspection in 1997.
“Just before 1997, a department store and a bridge collapsed out of the blue,” said Park Hyo-ju, chief of the housing planning division for the Seoul Metropolitan Government. “We became immediately worried.”
However, Suh Moo-hyun, 50, a former owner, claims the safety inspection was a unilateral process. “The city conducted its own safety investigation,” he said. “We had no say whatsoever nor were we informed about their standards.”
Following the inspection, from which officials concluded the apartments were hazardous, the city says it agreed on a compensation package with 91 percent of the owners, which resulted in Seoul city becoming the owner of the entire apartment complex.
Mr. Suh says the city government's figures are false. “91 percent? There weren’t that many who had agreed to the compensation [at the time],” said Mr. Suh, adding that the city government manipulated figures to go ahead with the demolition and the proposed park project.
In the end, each owner, who agreed to the deal, received between 25 million and 35 million won ($25,000 to $35,000) in cash, an amount the city ruled was the value of the various apartments there. Owners argued that the offer was a third of the apartments’ market price at the time of the valuation in 1997.
As for the remaining uncooperative 9 percent of owners, city officials say South Korean law permitted their forced removal, as Cheongun, a private property, stood on government-owned land designated for a “national project,” which includes public facilities such as parks.
“They dragged me out like a dog,” said Ms. Choi, who physically struggled to keep her apartment. As she was sitting down for breakfast one morning, she says, someone broke open her door with a crowbar and 50 men barged in with sledge hammers. They tried to pull her out; she resisted and fainted. Hospitalized for two days, when she returned, her apartment, along with her belongings, was a pile of jagged cement blocks.
Mr. Suh tells a similar story. “They carried me out of my apartment by my arms and legs,” said Mr. Suh, who has since lived in a tent overlooking his demolished home. “I didn’t even have time to take out my belongings.”
Kim Sam-soon, 66, a resident and owner at Cheongun since 1969, cautions, “No one started living there because they had it easy.”
Owners and their lawyer say the city has forced them out with other intentions, possibly to turn the land over to developers who will build high-end apartments.
“Of all things, they’re trying to build a park, and they’re in such a hurry,” said Choi Dal-soon, the lawyer who has represented the former owners since 2003. He added, “Once the demolition is finished, the city can do anything it wants. If city officials or the powers that be want to build an apartment, they can do that, too.”
City officials deny the accusations. However, injecting doubt into their claim is the city government’s reported efforts to increase the real estate value of areas north of the Han River. As part of the drive, the city is known to be seeking construction of high-end apartments to lure wealthy families away from the Gangnam area. Areas around Cheongun, say real estate experts, are ideal.
“It’s difficult to estimate a value for potential apartments, since it has not yet been allocated for such a project,” said a real estate expert from Speedbank, who requested anonymity. “But it’s safe to assume they would be quite valuable.”
Suspecting foul play and wanting their hard-earned homes back, 22 owners, mostly elderly, including Ms. Choi and Mr. Suh, continue to refuse compensation and squatted on the site until last month when the demolition was finished. Initially, Mr. Suh says there were 126 owners, who had hung their hopes on local courts where they had sued for better treatment and greater compensation since 2001. However, a string of losses, say former owners, showed there simply was no point going on.
“Even if I think it’s unfair, what can I do about it,” said Yang Dae-suk, who vacated Cheongun in May as the demolition began. “I was up against the government.”
Mr. Yang says he accepted 34 million won, a large amount compared to most owners. “But the compensation wasn’t enough,” said Mr. Yang. “My life has been more difficult since I’ve left. I paid lawyer’s fee for years, and that didn’t do much. Now, I have little money. And I no longer have a home.” Mr. Yang now rents an apartment.
“I’m already living outside Cheongun, paying rent,” said Ms. Choi, who has also cared for her sick husband in recent years.”[My husband and I] might have to move out soon, because we can’t afford the rent.”
Mr. Suh added that such a life is difficult for them to lead: “[Owners and residents] of Cheongun lived day by day. We barely make enough to survive. How can they put us in this position? How much more do we have to suffer?”
Some continued to live in Cheongun because they had nowhere else to go. Jobless and without any support from her children, Park Eun-jin stayed in her friend’s ground floor apartment for free. In recent months as the city moved to pull down the buildings, she spent her days with three stray dogs, eating ramen offered by other elderly and watching demolition crews nearing her apartment whose windows and door were sheets of vinyl. Former residents say her whereabouts since the demolition is unknown.
Mr. Park acknowledged the owners faced a difficult situation. “I know they aren’t the most economically well-off,” he said. “We’ve gone to court with them many times, and the city’s lost a lot of money because the project has been delayed for years. However, unlike most cases, these  owners, even if they lose in court, can still claim their compensation. But we cannot increase the compensation. It was determined according to regulations, and we cannot make an exception.”
While a streak of court losses may have dampened the hopes of the elderly, Mr. Choi says the demolition of the apartments will prove the most painful, as the elderly will never see their homes again. “Even if we win later on, [the owners] can’t get their homes back,” said Mr. Choi, the lawyer, referring to the demolished apartments. “What they’ll probably get is financial compensation.”
Others feel stripped of a lifetime of hard work to invest in a home where they watched their children grow up. “It was the first and only home for my husband and me,” said Ms. Kim. “These [apartments] may seem nothing to most people, but these were our homes.”
On the other hand, should the last holdouts continue to lose in court, Mr. Choi says they’ll become a part of those Koreans who have been left behind as the country charges ahead economically. “A nation may take strides to advance,” he said. “But it’s inevitable a few get left behind. The owners of Cheongun apartments are no different.” He added, “But what’s truly the most disturbing of all is that this atrocity is happening literally under the shadow of the Blue House.”
by Mingi Hyun