In South Korea’s capital, space is limited and housing expensive. Sharehouse Woozoo has found a way to provide young people with affordable housing – and a sense of community.
Friday evening in an apartment in Seoul’s neighborhood of Yeouido. Five young women move about with a sense of purpose. Abe Haruka, a Japanese citizen, is preparing to meet her boyfriend. The rest prepare dinner while waiting for Park Jin-seon, an office worker, to come home. Choi Su-gyeong, 23, is a university student and moved into the shared apartment in February 2016. Until then, she lived in a school dormitory. “I had a lot of premade food from convenience stores when I lived in the dorm. But now I go grocery shopping with the eonni-deul and we have dinner together almost every day.” She calls her flatmates eonni-deul, “older sisters” in Korean, in a sign of the tight bond among the residents.
Their arrangement of sharing a spacious apartment among six women is as lucky as it is unusual in a country where many people spend their twenties and thirties moving between basement apartments with little natural light, poorly insulated and often illegally constructed rooftop rooms, and cubicles that are rented out as private rooms in commercial buildings. Many of these apartments can be as small as 13 square meters. It is hardly romantic, even when justified in the name of youth. For this reason and others some young people have taken to calling South Korea “hell” or “Hell Joseon”, a satirical term calling to mind the last Korean kingdom.
It is thanks to a young social enterprise that the six women have found a comforting home in South Korea’s capital region where space and housing are at a premium. An estimated 25 million people live in Seoul and its surrounding areas – half of South Korea’s entire population. Seoul is the 15th most expensive city in the world to live in, according to Business Insider.
Offering a solution at the epicenter of Seoul’s housing crisis
It is all the more intriguing that the company to address Seoul’s extreme costs of housing decided to base its offices in the prime location of Yeouido. The area underwent planned development in the 1960s and boasts Korea’s National Assembly, broadcasting companies, financial firms and the glitzy IFC Shopping Center. Perhaps Sharehouse Woozoo’s founders are trying to place their solution at the epicenter of Seoul’s housing crisis. The social enterprise has been in existence for four years, and the business model is simple: rent large houses or apartments, and then renovate them before subletting to tenants willing to live together in a single housing unit. Sharehouse Woozoo now operates 38 so-called sharehouses around Seoul.
One of them, Woozoo Sharehouse No. 22, has become a home for Choi Su-gyeong and her eonni-deul. It is located in the Yeouido Model Apartment, one of the first apartment complexes to be built in Seoul. The structure dates back 40 years. Old-growth trees and neatly parked cars hint at both the passage of time and the tight-knit nature of the community.
Enhancing quality of life for young people
Su-gyeong says that living in the sharehouse made her healthier and improved her quality of life. She also feels a sense of solidarity and stability from talking with her flatmates late into each night. The residents come from vastly different backgrounds — an office worker, a part-timer, a university student, a Seoulite, an out-of-towner and even a foreigner — but they are unanimous in praising their living arrangement: “It’s like our home, and it feels like another family.” An added appeal is that they get to share access to a large kitchen and a living room even though they each pay an amount that would ordinarily be enough for a very small studio only.
Woozoo is so successful because of its very practical approach to providing housing and a sense of community. To this end, the social enterprise provides a service that apartment seekers find attractive. In South Korea renters usually have to make a hefty deposit upon moving in. The amount, ranging from a few hundred million KRW (a few thousand Euro) to tens of millions KRW (tens of thousands Euro), depends on the size and location of the apartment as well as the landlord’s whim. It is common for the landlord to refuse to return the deposit on time even when the rental agreement expires. In comparison, Woozoo asks for only two months’ rent as a deposit and serves as a liaison between the landlord and tenant. The company saves tenants the trouble of having to visit realtors and the stress of dealing with a landlord. The contract is simple and there is no hidden fee. Landlords are also happy because Woozoo handles repair and maintenance, keeping the property value high. As public perception of shared housing improves, more and more retirees with properties to rent are now making inquiries about how they, too, can join the program.
Social – but still an enterprise
In the Woozoo world, as everywhere else, not everything is perfect, of course. Sometimes a resident will not follow rules and the community will collapse. In some extreme cases the resident may be expelled. The model is ideal for those who like meeting new people, do not dwell on minor differences and do not have objections to a somewhat strict communal lifestyle. Bringing home a friend of the opposite gender is forbidden, for instance. There have been applicants who thought they could do as they pleased because they interpreted Woozoo as soft due to being a social entrepreneurship venture. To ensure that everyone is suited for this interpretation of communal life, applicants are selected through an interview process. In interviews the Woozoo team members stress their entrepreneurial principle, and are proud of the fact that their business model is sustainable.
“In South Korea the idea of sharing your living space with strangers and living in harmony is a relatively new concept. I think that one can get to know oneself better and grow by living with others. One day we want to buy and own a space that will best embody and express the values Woozoo is pursuing,” said Woozoo’s vice president Lee Ah-yeon.
After several economic crises and a prolonged recession the old ideas that South Korea once valued — “neighbors are cousins” or “generosity” — are quickly fading. At a time when young people are in need of practical solutions rather than empty words of comfort, Sharehouse Woozoo is quickly establishing itself as an alternative to housing shortage in Hell Joseon.