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London housing crisis coming to a crunch

Monday, 15 February 2016 00:00 Published in Commentary

LONDON — Londoners are getting desperate over rising rents, with residents and students taking to the streets and social media over the cramped conditions tenants are forced to accept.
With house-building lagging well behind the population increase in western Europe’s biggest city, prices are soaring beyond anything affordable.
“The situation is becoming untenable,” said retired teacher John Ford, 60, who joined a 2,000-strong protest this month against the government’s new housing bill, which would radically alter public housing and the rights of its tenants.
“My nephew is a young surgeon. He cannot afford, on his salary, to buy a house in London. So this crisis is beginning to eat into the middle class,” he said.
Latest figures show the average London house price was £514,097 ($740,400, 678,500 euros) in December, up 12.4 percent in 12 months, compared to a 6.4-percent increase to £188,270 across England and Wales.
The London-wide median rent is £122 a week for a room in a shared home; £276 for a one-bedroom property and £402 for a three-bedroom home.
Many “generation rent” young professionals, whose parents bought comfortable homes in their early 20s, have given up on their dream of ever affording a property in London.
Students are also feeling the crisis bite.
At University College London, more than 150 students have gone on a rent strike. One UCL block has rooms costing as much as £262 a week.
At this month’s protest outside Downing Street, two UCL students carried a symbolic home-made housing ladder, with all but the very top rungs knocked out.
“I don’t see any prospect of owning a home — certainly not in London,” said its co-creator, doctorate student Liam Shaw, 24.

Matchbox flats, closet bedrooms
London’s population is at a record high of 8.6 million and growing at around 100,000 a year.
Some 25,994 new homes were built in London in 2015, down nine percent on the previous year.
“People in the lowest-paid jobs have to live on the outskirts of London,” Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told AFP.
“We’re now hearing of junior doctors, nurses and teachers having to commute from outside.”
Commuting from outer London is not without cost in time and stress, let alone money. An annual travel pass from the city limits costs £2,364.
Part of the problem is wealthy foreign buyers snapping up high-end new developments as a safe investment and leaving them empty while they accrue value.
“Buy-to-leave is dreadful. But the real issue is what’s being built: homes designed for just that,” said Bennett.
“Let’s provide genuinely affordable, secure homes for people.”
Some are proposing innovative solutions to the situation.
Rupert Hunt, founder of flatshare website SpareRoom.com, is opening up his own plush home in trendy Shoreditch to lodgers paying whatever they can afford, in a bid to encourage others.
“Demand has increased massively. It’s not unusual to see 10 or 12 people for every room especially in some parts of London,” he told AFP.
“In England there’s something like 19 million spare rooms, empty rooms and if we just convinced three percent of that to take a lodger that’s the size of a small city in extra housing.”
The outrage over rising rent is fed with regular stories in local papers about tenants being offered bedrooms in closets under stairs or in corners of living rooms, or matchbox-size houses selling for astronomical amounts.
A flat dubbed the “least expensive” in London, measuring just 75 square feet (7.0 square meters), sold last month for £79,000 in Clapton in east London.
Housing is a major issue in May’s London mayoral election to decide who replaces Boris Johnson.
At a debate this month, the two leading contenders, Conservative Zac Goldsmith and Labor’s Sadiq Khan, outlined their plans.
Goldsmith said transport links must be improved to “reflect the reality of more and more people living on the outskirts.”
Khan vowed to build more “genuinely affordable homes” and clamp down on developers selling property to foreign investors.
With the price of even the average London property going up by £10,682 in December alone, there will be little time to waste.

SEOUL — As the mercury outside plunges to minus 10 degrees on an ice-cold Monday afternoon, the dance floor inside the Kukilgwan Palace is packed with gray-haired Korean couples moving to the rhythms of high-volume disco.
“I come here every day of the week, except for Saturday and Sunday,” said 81-year-old Jun Il-Taek as he danced beneath the giant disco balls and brightly-colored string lights decorating the venue in central Seoul.
Jun was one of around 200 men and women on the floor — all engaged in the same, rather static, knee-bobbing dance routine, with the odd slow-motion twirl to liven things up.
The sedate nature of the dancing is in stark contrast to the decibel level of the music, which slowly envelops the ascending elevator as it approaches the ninth-floor dance club.
“Nothing keeps me healthier than dancing ... I can’t live without this place,” Jun said, deftly leading his 75-year-old female partner into a slow turn.
The army veteran is one of thousands of retired South Koreans hitting the dance floors at “Colatecs” — special discos for the elderly that are flourishing across the country.
South Korea’s rapidly ageing population may be a major headache for policymakers, but its members are determined to enjoy themselves, dancing the years away at clubs where 50-year-olds are turned away for being “too young.”

From teens to OAPs
Colatecs first emerged in the late 1990s as dance halls for teenagers, where alcohol was banned and the only drinks on offer were sodas like Coca Cola.
But they soon fell out of fashion with their young clientele which migrated to gatherings at Internet cafes and karaoke clubs.
And so the Colatecs rebranded themselves for an entirely different demographic.
“They became a playground for the over 60s ... and they turned out to be far more loyal customers,” said Lee Kwan-Woo, the owner of the Kukilgwan Palace which was established in the early 2000s.
“Here, they can exercise to stay healthy, make new friends and have a little bit of excitement,” said the 70-year-old former nightclub singer.
South Koreans aged 65 plus make up 13 percent of the population, and that figure is expected to rise to as much as 40 percent by 2060.
Currently, half of that demographic live on or below the poverty line. A meager pension and lack of social welfare make retirement a daunting prospect.
New-found leisure
Among those with some disposable income, leisure activity is something of an unknown field for a generation whose labor transformed the country from a war-ravaged backwater to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
“This generation spent all their lives working, working and working, and leisure was considered a privilege of the elite,” said Hwang Nam-Hui, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
“So many find it hard, and even baffling, just to relax and enjoy themselves after retirement,” Hwang said.
Kukilgwan Palace owner Lee says clubs like his offer a vital opportunity to “unwind and just have fun.”
His venue attracts 800 visitors on a weekday and up to 1,500 at weekends. The entrance fee is cheap at 1,000 won ($0.80). Most of the club’s income comes from food and drinks.
The physical limitations of its elderly patrons are reflected in the noon to 6 p.m. opening hours which, Lee says, work well because most “feel too tired at night.”
A well-stocked medicine cabinet contains remedies for a host of possible emergencies, including a sudden drop in sugar levels.
“If a regular suddenly stops coming, it usually means he or she has died,” said Lee, who feels attending funerals of loyal customers is part of his job.

Turning away the under 60s
Many are widows or widowers looking for some company and mild flirtation, and anyone under 60 is turned away as they may “annoy other patrons and spoil the mood,” Lee said.
The dress code is generally conservative, with men in pleated pants and blazers and women in dress pants or knee-length skirts.
Some women might risk a shorter hemline, or a bit of glitter, but for the men, a fedora worn at a jaunty angle is about as risque as it gets.
In what remains a very Confucian culture, elderly South Koreans are expected to behave with moderation and dignity, and Colatecs are frowned on by those who see them as unseemly hook-up joints for pensioners.                         

US deploys more Patriot missiles in S. Korea

Sunday, 14 February 2016 00:00 Published in Headlines

SEOUL — The United States has temporarily deployed an additional Patriot missile battery in South Korea following North Korea’s recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, US Forces Korea yesterday said.
The move came as the two allies plan to start detailed discussions on bringing in an advanced, high-altitude US missile defense system opposed by China as early as next week.
“This deployment is part of an emergency deployment readiness exercise conducted in response to recent North Korean provocations,” the US Forces Korea said in a press statement, referring to the temporary roll-out of a Patriot missile battery, which was flown from Fort Bliss, Texas, this week.
“Exercises like this ensure we are always ready to defend against an attack from North Korea,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, commander of the US Eighth Army. The newly deployed Patriot battery is conducting ballistic missile defense training with the Eighth Army’s 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Osan Air Base, some 47 kilometers south of Seoul.
The brigade has its own two Patriot battalions. One Patriot battalion is reportedly composed of four batteries.
Just hours after North Korea launched a long-range rocket that both condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test, South Korea and the United States announced their intention to start discussions on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD).
The Pentagon has since stressed it would like the system to be deployed in South Korea “as quickly as possible.”
A senior South Korean defense ministry official said detailed discussions on THAAD deployment would kick off as early as next week.
China and Russia argued that it would trigger an arms race in the region, with Beijing voicing its “deep concern” over the deployment.
South Korea had previously declined to formally discuss bringing in THAAD in deference to the sensitivities of China, its most important trade partner.    

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