Ideas

Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

Urban living at a bargain price, but how small is too small?

João Fazenda for The Boston Globe

Seoul

IN SOUTH KOREA, high rent doesn’t stop young people from living alone — so long as they’re willing to do without any extra space. For $160 a month, young people living in one of the world’s most populous cities can have a furnished, Wi-Fi-connected room with a shared kitchen and bathroom — all utilities included. Called “goshiwons,” these communal apartment buildings can be a minimalist’s dream, with units averaging around 55 to 75 square feet.

There are high-end goshiwons, sometimes called “goshitels,” where upscale workers and college students tend to live. Down-market goshiwons, meanwhile, can be claustrophobic, even ramshackle. The ubiquity of tiny dwellings in Seoul, one of the densest metropolitan areas in the developed world, offers an unusually stark illustration of the tradeoff between floor space and location. To the eyes of Americans raised in roomier homes, these buildings raise uncomfortable questions: Could we ever live in such close quarters? For the sake of living in a bustling city, how much space should a person be willing — or perhaps even be allowed — to sacrifice? How small is too small?

“I’m from the countryside, but I wanted to explore life in the big city,” Sim Kyu-dong, a 29-year-old photographer living in a goshiwon, said through an interpreter. He’s lived in at least seven goshiwons in Seoul and spent years researching and documenting them with his camera. Sim’s photography focuses on the the more dilapidated, tenement-style goshiwons that house migrant workers, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Still, he sees both upsides and downsides to these buildings. “It’s a simple life,” he said, “but there are many people who are satisfied with it. It’s not just for the poor.”

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Most goshiwons are cheap, incredibly small apartment buildings where rent is paid monthly, usually with no deposit or formal lease required. Rooms with private bathrooms or sunny windows are typically $300 to $450, though they still look like a walk-in closet. But compare that to a one-bedroom apartment in Boston — $1,412 per month in 2018 — and the tight space might not sound so bad.

In many ways, the return to smaller living is a return to the past, and not just in South Korea. Urban rooming houses for single working men and women were once the norm in the United States. Boston, like many other US cities, long ago banned tiny apartments. But some housing experts, policy makers, and entrepreneurs are seeking to ease those rules to accommodate microunits and co-living systems. In a modern spin on communal housing, the Northeastern University professor Barry Bluestone has urged the creation of “millennial villages,” complexes in which small individual apartments would share a common kitchen.

Some version of goshiwons would work in the United States, argues Troy Evans, founder of Commonspace, a Syracuse-based community of tiny apartments. “There are so many people who want to live in our urban areas that would love to pay $300 a month and wouldn’t care what it would look like,” Evans said.

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BUILDING GOSHIWONS in the United States wouldn’t be simple. Since the rooms aren’t self-contained with their own kitchens or bathrooms, they arguably don’t even qualify as micro-housing — which is already tough to build in most American cities. Even in South Korea, closet-sized units weren’t meant to turn into permanent living spaces. The word “goshiwon” translates to “study room.” Goshiwons first cropped up around the 1980s as a cheap place for students to isolate themselves while preparing for major state or licensing exams.

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Yet they soon provided a ready solution to a different need. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, many people started flocking to these spaces as their only viable housing option. Since then, they’ve become a mainstay in Seoul, where the population and property prices have generally increased during a chronic housing shortage. The number of goshiwon buildings across Korean cities more than doubled from 4,700 to 11,800 between 2006 and 2017, according to the National Emergency Management Agency, a government body that regulates them for safety.

Today, they’re hardly “study rooms.” A study in 2008 found that only a quarter of the residents were students, another quarter were office workers, while the rest were either common laborers or people without jobs.

“They were never meant for this purpose, but they became an alternative to regular housing for the poor and low-income,” Nom Won-sook, a housing expert at the Seoul Institute, said through an interpreter. “But these days, goshiwons and goshitels are actually the reasonable choice for most young people.”

“A lot of the people living in my building are just single ajushis” — middle-aged men — “going to work,” said Anyacho Chidiogo Favour, a 23-year-old student from Nigeria who pays about $295 a month to live in his air-conditioned goshiwon. His previous goshiwon was so small that he could “couldn’t bear it,” his arms able to touch both walls at once, he says. But he’s happy at his new one. Tenants in his building get rice and kimchi in the kitchen, and a member of the building staff cooks meals like curry or black noodles for them twice a week — all included in the rent.

“Everyone has their reasons to live here like I do,” he said. “If you’re single, you get to live in Seoul but save your money.”

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Unconventional housing starts to look more attractive when the cost of more traditional apartments climbs outside a would-be tenant’s reach. To move into a standard apartment in South Korea takes lots of money. Up-front deposits sometimes top $9,300 — and tenants still pay hundreds of dollars per month in rent on top of that. In another system, the rent is free, but tenants must put down a deposit worth 70 to 85 percent of the property value — that was $290,000 on average for a Seoul apartment in 2013. These deposits are insured, and landlords are expected to make a profit by investing them during the tenant’s stay.

Goshiwons are a more feasible alternative for those without deposit money, but they’re no silver bullet. Youth unemployment rates in South Korea have been unusually high. Goshiwon rental fees are still quite expensive for young people, said Nom, the housing researcher. “But New York millennials probably don’t want to pay $1,200 to live in a closet, either, and goshiwons sure beat that price.”

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IN PRACTICE, Boston already has its own version of the goshiwon: Nearly 40,000 city residents live in university dormitories. But building dorms for general public use would face high regulatory hurdles. The “millennial village” would likely require changes to Boston’s 450-square-foot minimum apartment size. Recently constructed “innovation units” in Boston’s Seaport district have been allowed to break that standard, but they still run for monthly rents of $1,700 or higher, despite their small size. Even in Seoul, the only reason goshiwons escape size minimums is that they’re merely considered “quasi-housing.”

South Koreans are, in many ways, more used to smaller spaces and urban density than Americans are. About half of the country’s population lives in Seoul, where, as of 2016, nearly 75 percent of all housing was in multi-unit apartment buildings, according to government statistics. It’s not uncommon for Koreans to live in massive “tower blocks,” either, which house thousands of people in one high-rise apartment building — 19,000 people reportedly live in a single block of Seoul’s Jamsil district, for example. In contrast, many of the Americans who have migrating to their cities en masse originally hail from the single, detached housing of suburbia. And when large buildings — especially those containing small units — are proposed here, housing experts have learned to expect stiff neighborhood opposition.

For Americans, embracing micro-living may be a heavy cultural lift. “In the US, people have a strong resistance to density just because it’s density. I do think it’s a cultural thing,” said Mark Munroe, one of the researchers behind the millennial village concept and a current partner at the Seattle design consultancy firm Neuron LLC. “When we think about how we can get zoning to change and accept [micro-apartments], definitely part of that is getting people to be okay with density to begin with.”

It’s true that South Korea’s goshiwons are far from glamorous. Yet, for some, it’s still worth it. Sim struggled with depression during his stay in the lower-end goshiwons of Seoul, and he eventually decided to move back in with his parents in the small, northeastern city of Gangneung for a year. But now he’s back in Seoul and giving the lifestyle another try — he pays $280 month for his current goshiwon and doesn’t mind it as much.

“It’s a little expensive, but it’s clean and it’s the largest one I’ve ever lived in yet,” he said. “For now, life here isn’t so bad. I’m quite satisfied.”

In his ambivalence, he captures the disappointment and the promise inherent in South Korea’s extreme version of micro-units. They’re fine for the young, but it’s also a tough way to live year after year. It’s nobody’s ideal, but for many it’s still preferable to not being in Seoul at all.

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @KasulisK.