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13 Jun 2024 6:19
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  •   Home > News > International

    A city in South Korea is offering small apartments for $11 a month. Why isn't Australia doing the same?

    Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet some students are only paying $11 a month in rent. Here's how they're doing it.

    It's a tale of two of the world's least-affordable housing markets.

    Sydney is home to some of the country's most well-known landmarks, gorgeous beaches and an enviable lifestyle.

    And if you're looking to buy an apartment in the coveted city, you could be stung about $1 million for the privilege.

    It's the average price for an apartment in the 2000 postcode, or if you're looking to rent, $700 a week.

    Meanwhile in Seoul — a bustling South Korean known for its own landmarks, beaches and lifestyle — the average price is about $800 a week.

    But in a small suburb inside the city, an apartment is going for $11 a month.

    A life-changing project

    The housing markets in Sydney and Seoul are some of the most competitive in the world.

    In Sydney, the typical household would spend about 13 years of its income to purchase a median-priced home.

    In Seoul, South Korea, it's 15 years.

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    Almost one in three Australian households are renters. in Seoul, the local government has become a part of the solution.

    Yangnyeong Youth House consists of 36 apartments and was set up by the district of Seoul using money from its own in-house public works corporation Korea Dongjak Corporation.

    It offers heavily subsidised studios built for young South Koreans who can’t afford to live in the capital, where the average single-person unit in college neighbourhoods can typically fetch up to $700.

    The apartments are tiny — roughly 20 square metres — but winning residency felt like winning the lottery for some Seoul locals.

    College senior Kim Do-yeon was one of 700 people who applied for the means-tested apartment, and she told the LA Times it was a relief she could stay in the city where she studied and worked.

    "Everybody around me wants to get into a public apartment … I applied to five other places before I got this one," she said.

    For many, the $11 apartment is life-changing and all 36 units have already been filled.

    Closer to home in Australia, there is a similar project based in Marrickville in New South Wales.

    Set up by not-for-profits Fresh Hope Communities and Nightingale, it is a public housing project with more than 50 25-square metre mini apartments offered at a subsidised cost for low-income tenants.

    Those who live in the project pay between $395 and $440 a week, and the units were comparable in size to those on offer in Yangnyeong Youth House.

    However, planning, investment and building the project has been challenging for the two not-for-profits running the project.

    The development endured significant setbacks due to the pandemic, increased building costs and labour shortages, and was in the pipeline for nearly six years before it was finally able to open its doors last month.

    Without significant government backing, Nightingale chief executive officer Dan McKenna said those working on the project were only doing what they could within a "broken" system.

    "There's no government subsidies, there's no one magically pumping money into this," he said

    "It is just Fresh Hope Communities.

    "Whilst we've poured a lot of time and resources into it, but it's [Fresh Hope] who have poured a whole lot of money into actually developing the project.

    "That's been a pretty significant financial challenge for them."

    Mr McKenna said while it had been one of the most significant projects the not-for-profits had taken on in recent years, the benefits of providing low-cost housing had been immediate.

    "People are really enjoying it — just to have a space that is their own, or they've been able to close the door and cook their own food and have their own bathroom … that's a massive game changer for people," he said.

    How low can you go?

    Opinion on whether Australia could sustain a model similar to Yangnyeong Youth House is divided.

    Levande chief executive officer Kevin McCoy said from his experience in low-cost housing, it would be a tough ask.

    "I couldn't picture it, no," he said.

    Levande constructs retirement villages, and is working on a similar low-cost housing project in Sydney.

    The company currently has three projects in the works on the east coast, and they have been held up in various stages for the past six years.

    Mr McCoy said there were many solutions to the housing crisis Australian companies were already working on, but they'd struggled to get buy-in from local planning authorities and governments.

    "One of the things that frustrates us because the more units and communities we can build, the more people who are exiting their homes, downsizing, and the more housing stock becomes available," he said.

    Levande units are sold between 55 and 60 per cent of the median house price of the area, and Mr McCoy said there needed to be a change in the approach to low-cost housing if Australian authorities would start to make a dent in the crisis.

    He said a key was supporting developers who were attempting to make a difference.

    "They've got to speed things up … maybe in the old days, they had slow processes just to slow development," Mr McCoy said.

    "It might have worked in a different world, but [we're] in a world where we do have a shortage."

    In the view of Greens Housing and Homelessness spokesman Max Chandler-Mather, the South Korean model is one Australia could easily achieve with the right willpower.

    "The biggest barrier to the government adopting similar policies in Australia now is political, because the big banks, property developers and property investors make billions of dollars off a housing system that treats housing as a lucrative financial asset, and they collectively wield enormous political influence over Labor and the Liberals," he said.

    He said the Greens had previously floated a public developer, similar to the Seoul model.

    "Ultimately this comes down to choices," Mr Chandler-Mather said.

    "Right now the government spends $39 billion a year on tax handouts for property investors, driving up the price of housing and denying renters the chance to buy a home.

    "Whereas they could phase out those tax handouts and spend that money building housing and renting out at affordable prices, just like this example in Korea."

    The federal government announced $6.2 billion in housing initiatives in its budget, with $1.9 billion going towards government-backed loans for affordable homes and $423 million towards the national agreement on social housing and homelessness.

    Minister for Housing Julie Collins said the federal government's Homes for Australia would go a way toward providing affordable accommodation in the future.

    "Our government understands too many Australians don't have a safe and affordable place to call home," she said.

    "That's why we are delivering our comprehensive Homes for Australia plan, backed by $32 billion in new housing initiatives.

    "More homes mean more affordable options for everyone — whether they're buying, renting or needing a safe space for the night.

    "We are already building modular homes and are exploring alternative methods of construction as well as technology to deliver more affordable homes, more quickly."

    She said the Housing Australia Future Fund and Commonwealth rent assistance were attempting to target Australians impacted by a rising cost of living and unaffordable housing.

    "We'll continue to work closely with state and territories, as well as the sector, to ensure more Australians have a safe and affordable place to call home," Ms Collins said.


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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