President Moon Jae-in on Monday decided to preserve greenbelt development restriction zones around Seoul.
Earlier, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the government had vowed to weigh the option of lifting development restrictions on greenbelt zones as a way to increase housing supply under Moon’s instruction.
However, some figures in the ruling camp voiced individual positions against the option, confusing the market.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Sunday called for “caution” in considering lifting greenbelt restrictions.
Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, bandied about as a potential presidential contender for the ruling party, voiced opposition to the lifting of greenbelt development restrictions.
Even Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae opined on Facebook against greenbelt development.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government has long opposed the idea of developing greenbelt areas.
Moon’s decision undid debate on the issue, but the government should have acted cautiously from the beginning to avoid creating confusion. In conclusion, his decision is a move in the right direction.
A similar debate on greenbelt development took place two years ago. At that time Seoul opposed and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport considered lifting greenbelt restrictions by official authority. But eventually, the idea was scrapped.
Greenbelt zones have played an important role in preventing indiscriminate urban sprawl and preserving the environment.
Major cities around the world do not have only high-rise buildings, but also green space from place to place. Mountains in their vicinity are densely forested. Urbanization is inevitable in the process of industrialization, but greenbelts serve cities as their lungs.
The government designated a total of 530 million square meters across the country as greenbelt zones from 1971 to 1977, and has lifted restrictions on 150 million square meters of that so far. As of late last year, the greenbelt in Seoul extends across 150 square kilometers, or 25 percent of its total area.
Lifting development bans on greenbelt zones had little effect on stabilizing house prices. Rather the move raised prices of surrounding land due to the expectation of development.
Apartments built on the greenbelt sold for less than market prices in a bid to stabilize housing prices, but their prices rose to the level of neighboring apartments within a few years.
If the Seoul greenbelt is opened up for the construction of new apartments, new cities now under construction around the capital will likely lose their allure. Lifting development bans on the greenbelt can have a negative impact on existing cities around the capital and provincial property markets.
It is wrong to develop the greenbelt to construct apartments there while leaving unsightly decrepit apartments in Seoul as they are.
The proportion of Seoul apartments bought by those living outside the capital was 23.9 percent as of February. The figure for the three most favored Gangnam districts in Seoul was 27.9 percent. Money and people tend to rush to Seoul, especially to the expensive Gangnam area, from around the country. It is questionable if this problem can be solved by developing the greenbelt around Seoul.
The government must try other options to increase the housing supply in Seoul. The priority alternative recommended by experts is to activate reconstruction and redevelopment in Seoul by relaxing restrictions on the floor space ratio.
But the government has moved in the opposite direction by suppressing reconstruction and redevelopment and instead trying to increase the tax burden on owners of multiple homes to make them sell their houses.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government under former Mayor Park Won-soon restrained reconstruction and redevelopment, particularly in the Gangnam districts, even though about half of Seoul houses are obsolete and require reconstruction. It lost an opportunity to expand the housing supply. Rather, Seoul has tried hard to preserve old neighborhoods under an “urban regeneration” project. This policy has aggravated the shortage of houses.
If the government wants to increase the housing supply in Seoul, the first thing to do is to deregulate reconstruction and redevelopment. The greenbelt zones cannot so easily be restored once they are compromised.