Urban Middle-Class and the Politics of Home Ownership in South Korea

By Kim, Myeongsoo | Development and Society, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Urban Middle-Class and the Politics of Home Ownership in South Korea


Kim, Myeongsoo, Development and Society


Introduction

The struggle for housing in Korean society during the period of democratization can be seen as part of the 'housing question' that emerged from newly industrialized countries in the 1970s and 1980s (Hodkinson 2012). Like the housing crisis in many developing countries, the struggle in Korea also resulted from the housing shortage and slum problems that have arisen along the wave of compressed urbanization. Such a struggle was not only a self-defensive response to the slum elimination initiative imposed in the absence of a public housing program, but also a distributive demand to resist urban inequalities that spread with the commercialization of land and housing (Davis 2006). Moreover, the Korean housing movement functioned as a symbol of the 'economic democratization movement' which demanded the dissolution of the ownership gap and the realization of distributive justice by spreading the achievement of democratization into economic life. Thus, beyond the local opposition to spatial reorganization, it has emerged as an important social movement aiming at equality in ownership by eliminating the monopoly of ownership, suppressing speculation, and expanding housing supply. Unlike other third world societies that dreamed of 'a slum of hope' through collective land occupation, self-help housing construction, and gradual improvement, the goal of the Korean housing struggle gradually converged on securing home ownership through the housing market.1 As such, the citizens of Korea desired the expansion of home ownership through social solidarity involving workers and the middle classes.

However, with the rapid progress of neo-liberal globalization following the financial crisis of the late 1990s, the housing movement in Korea has undergone dramatic changes. The public aspirations toward the right to property seem to have been replaced by the right of homeowners that protect and promote economic interests in ownership. The major changes in the housing market in the era of neo-liberal globalization can be summarized into two interrelated components: the first is the stagnation of the home ownership rate and the increase of multiple home ownership. The owner occupancy rate in Korea dropped to its lowest point of 49.9% in 1990 before rebounding to 53.3% in 1995, after which it has fluctuated from 53% to 56% over the past two decades. In contrast to this stagnation of the home ownership rate, over the past decade, the proportion of multi-home owning households and the number of their properties has more than doubled (MGAGA 2005; Statistics Korea Ingujutaekchongjosa 2016). The sequential rise in housing supply and housing finance since the late 1980s has created a paradoxical outcome of the explosion of multiple home ownership.

The second change is the rise of ownership politics. During the democratization period, the housing movement was transformed into a massive popular movement and contributed to social solidarity. However, after the 1997 financial crisis, the solidarity surrounding the housing question has weakened, while competition and social selection among classes have become much more intense. The movement to defend private ownership and to monopolize economic opportunity has replaced the movement towards equality in ownership and equal opportunity. Owner behavior that exclusively uses home ownership as a means to show off one's hierarchical (class) status or to protect narrow material interests have also grown. In this way, the character of the housing movement gradually changed from a social movement to a special interest group movement. Middle-class homeowners, who live in the metropolitan area including Seoul, played the leading role in such changes.

Interestingly, the focus of conflict has always been on home ownership, in contrast to this change in solidarity. Urban households in Korea argued for a democratic approach to owner-occupied housing as a means of securing the livelihood and economic safety of their families, rather than requiring alternative housing tenures as a means of livelihood for the reproduction of labor power. …

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