Suburban blight, Japanese-style

img_20161223_114702In our latest housing column for the Japan Times we talk about a new book by Chie Nozawa that explains in simple, clear terms why more and more abandoned homes, both houses and condos, will litter the landscape in coming years. She gives a lot of good examples of the kind of city planning, or, more precisely, lack of city planning, that has given rise to over-production of housing even as the population in general is shrinking and homes are left vacant.

Last week, she published an article in Gendai Business that summarizes and elaborates on the book. (Gendai is published by Kodansha, which also published her book) Her main thesis is that housing is “no longer” a financial asset, though we would probably argue that it never really has been. She points out that by 2033 one out of every three homes in Japan will be vacant, and that if nothing is done–either through demolition or some program to make more effective use of existing housing–there will be 21.5 million vacant homes in Japan. She give two reasons based on the fact that the huge boomer generation will be dying out in large numbers: 1) the homes the boomers have inherited from their own parents will be empty; 2) the homes the boomers built themselves will be empty because their own children built their own homes and thus have no reason to take those homes over. It seems almost redundant for her to mention that these homes, unless they are located in major cities on desirable land, have no value whatsoever. The homes that boomers now live in are old, and so their heirs cannot possibly move in or sell or rent them without extensive renovations, which is not liely to happen given the nature of the housing market, which is all about new things, as we pointed out in our column.

img_20161223_114841Thus, these properties have “negative value,” meaning regardless of whether the heirs tear them down or improve them, they will have to spend money that they will never see again because it will become increasingly difficult to sell or otherwise liquidate these properties, most of which are in the suburbs. And the more there are, the worse this problem gets.

This vacant house problem brings about what Nozawa calls the “sponge phenomenon.” In English parlance we might refer to it as the Swiss cheese effect: The suburbs of major cities, and even the cities themselves, become pocked with holes of vacancies that further erode surrounding property values and scare off younger potential homeowners, who gravitate instead to the nearest brand new ultra-cheap, ultra-cramped subdivision. Nozawa gives examples of regional capitals where this effect is already in full swing: 20.8 percent of the homes in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, are vacant.

img_20161223_114030Vacant housing comes in four types: rental housing that is presently uninhabited, vacant houses on sale, secondary housing (vacation homes, etc.) that is unoccupied almost all of the time, and abandoned housing, meaning not for rent or sale, merely empty. Nozawa provides statistics showing that of these four type, the last, abandoned housing, is increasing at the fastest rate. She also shows the direct relationship between the amount of new housing being built in a town or city, and that locality’s portion of vacant housing. In most cases the more building that’s happening, the higher the number of vacant homes. A few enterprising spirits are trying to address this problem. One local real estate company in Higashi Matsuyama, about 50 kilomters north of Tokyo, is actively buying up small lots in these sponge-like neighborhoods and combining adjacent ones to make larger lots that can accommodate larger houses, but in order to do that effectively the realtor has to locate the owners of land that in many cases has been abandoned for a long time, and often that means negotiating with more than one reluctant heir.

It’s not a problem that is going away any time soon, or even later.img_20161223_115303

Genesis

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Because Japan as a country didn’t make housing starts an integral part of its economy until after World War II, we’ve tended to believe that housing developments didn’t exist before the war, but, of course, that isn’t true. Recently we came across a 2009 article by a professor named Ken Shibata who teaches at Kyushu University’s graduate school. In it he describes several prewar housing developments.

Shibata writes from the standpoint that “suburbs in Japan are in trouble,” meaning that they are increasingly filled with vacant properties and are losing value along with residents. He blames the policy–which we’ve mentioned many times in our own blog–of focusing on new developments rather than maintaining existing ones, and he cites three prewar housing developments that today have good value even though they are quite old.

One is Denenchofu in Ota Ward, Tokyo, which sounds like a ringer. Denenchofu is famously upscale, with large, extremely expensive properties. Celebrities and rich executives live there. Though it’s not exactly Beverly Hills, it is as close to a Japanese cognate as you’re going to get. Another, more down-to-earth housing development is Tokiwadai in Itabashi Ward, which was first developed more than 80 years ago. Both these neighborhoods are in Tokyo proper, and even though they were relatively rural areas at the time they were first built, right now they have high property values simply because of their location and not so much because of the quality of their housing stock. Read More

Three’s a crowd

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A model Hebel House “nisetai jutaku” by Asahi Kasei

In the Japanese government’s neverending quest to realign the economy through tax incentives, a new proposal is about to go into effect with little fanfare. On the surface, this scheme seems both harmless and inconsequential. Starting in April, families will receive tax breaks when they remodel their homes to accommodate “three generations,” meaning grandparents, parents, and children. In order to qualify for the deduction, the renovation has to incorporate a doubling of household functions–at least one additional bathtub, toilet, kitchen, and foyer. The amount of the deduction would be equal to 10 percent of the total cost of the renovation up to a maximum of ¥250,000, which means if the total cost of the work is ¥2.5 million you get a ¥250,000 deduction, and if the work costs more you still get a deduction of only ¥250,000. Still, that’s quit a bit since this amount is subtracted from the total tax owed to the government. Moreover, if you take out a loan for the renovation, you get another tax cut for that. In addition, there’s talk about a subsidy system, much in the same vein as the subsidy system for home improvements that incorporate barrier-free functions and energy conservation measures.

What’s interesting about this scheme is that it doesn’t follow the usual Liberal Democratic Party thinking when it comes to consumer-oriented tax breaks, especially those involving homes. Usually, the purpose of such schemes is to prop up the housing market or the construction industry, but according to the Asahi Shimbun, a representative of the Housing Renovation Promoting Council said that while the council “welcomes” the tax cut and hopes it will stimulate sales, it had nothing to do with it and, in fact, didn’t know anything about it until the media reported it.

The government, specifically the cabinet office, which is handling the wording and implementation of the directive, says that the purpose of the tax break is to “reduce social welfare.” By encouraging extended families to live together the government hopes to relieve some of the burden on social welfare functions related to nursing care for the elderly and daycare for preschool children, two issues that require immediate attention. Read More

“Semi” isn’t in it

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The Feb. 21 Media Mix column in the Japan Times, which we also write, is about the money scandal surrounding Liberal Democratic Party member Akira Amari that forced him to resign his cabinet position. The scandal involved a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, which wanted to shake down the Urban Renaissance Agency for a large amount of compensation, since part of the company’s “offices” had to move due to a road construction project that UR was carrying out with the Chiba Prefecture authorities. Takeshi Isshiki, ostensibly an official with the construction company, told various media how he had paid money to Amari and his secretaries so that they would use their influence to get as much money as possible out of UR. One of the themes of the column is that UR, which is called a “semi-private” or “semi-public” organization, depending on which angle you look at if from, is an entrenched bureacratic entity beholden to the government for its very existence. It started out as the Japan Housing Corporation, a clearly entrenched bureaucratic entity, which built lots of housing developments in the years after World War II with government money. Since the end of the bubble era, it hasn’t done much of that and has sunken deeper into debt. Without much purpose in life except collecting rent on UR apartments, UR is seen as a pointless enterprise now and several administrations have tried to privatize it, but UR has resisted because being in the government guarantees incomes. Thrown on the mercy of the market, most of its employees would lose their jobs, or make less money.

The information we used to make these points in the column was taken from an article in Gendai Business written by Yoichi Takahashi, a former finance ministry economist who knows a thing or two about how bureaucracies work and bureaucrats think. His point is that the scandal would never have happened if UR weren’t involved. Had the road construction project been carried out by a genuine private concern, or even by the Chiba Prefecture government by itself, it would have been more difficult for the construction company to extort money, and, in any case, Amari wouldn’t have had as much pull in any related negotiations. But because UR occupies a shaky position vis-a-vis the government, it easily bends to pressure from that government, especially a cabinet member. Read More

Condomanic-depressive

DSCF2154Last week the media reported that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism was devising a plan to limit the number of abandoned houses and apartments in Japan to no more than 4 million by fiscal 2025. As of 2013, the year the results of the last ministry 5-year survey were released, the number of vacant homes in Japan was estimated to be 8.19 million, about 40 percent of which–3.18 million–were not on sale or for rent. At the present rate, the number of abandoned abodes would rise to 5 million by 2025, so the ministry has decided to put into effect measures to bring down that number. They will announce these measures in March.

According to reports, the plan would involve “putting some abandoned houses and apartments back on the market and removing others,” as well as “offering such houses and apartments to low-income earners and families with children.” In addition, the government would also promote “the replacement of aging condominiums.” Any of these measures would require a much larger existing home market, which was worth about ¥4 trillion in 2013. The ministry thinks it can boost it to ¥8 trillion by 2025 and increase the remodeling and renewal market from ¥7 to ¥12 trillion. Since there would be no attendant increase in the population, the new home market would probably have to decrease in order for these targets to make sense; that and salaries would have to see a boost.

Since new housing starts has always been a chief economic motivator in Japan, it’s difficult to imagine that the government would do anything to discourage new home construction, and as long as it’s a priority it will be difficult to reduce the vacant home problem. For one thing, only new home buyers get tax breaks. More to the point, while the problem of abandoned single-family homes can be addressed in a relatively direct fashion–either fix them up to make them sellable or tear them down–the problem of abandoned units of collective housing is not so simple. For one thing, in order for a building to be rebuilt or “replaced,” four-fifths of the owners of the building’s units must approve, and that’s a hard portion to reach, especially given the fact that a lot of condo owners do not live in their units but rather rent them out. According to Yomiuri Shimbun, the government is thinking of changing the law so that absentee owners of condo units can be ignored if for whatever reason they do not participate in the vote for rebuilding. Read More

Year Zero (2)

CIMG3303The landscaping took more than two weeks. It rained off and on, thus making work a bit difficult. We were surprised at how much equipment was needed to do what we had assumed was a fairly simply job, and wondered how they could charge so little when they were using backhoes, steam shovels, and cranes installed on the beds of large trucks. One of the reasons we didn’t order any concrete work was because we didn’t think it was worth the expense, the reason being that you had to hire an outside company with a cement mixer regardless of how much cement you were going to pour, but in any case on a few days there was quite a bit of equipment on the property.

CIMG3478The first order of business was moving the huge mound of dirt displaced by the septic tank. An older man did that and it wasn’t until the second day or so that we realized he was the father of the huge guy in charge of the project. It turned out to be a fairly tedious task. Since carting the dirt away would have cost us more money we asked if he could distribute it evenly along the akamichi–the strip of city-owned dirt road that bordered the southeast side of our property. We didn’t bother asking for permission from the city since it was obvious no public vehicle was ever going to use it. The old guy did as we asked for no extra fee, though to us it looked like extra work, since after depositing the dirt on the road he had to spread it around. In the end he did quite a good job of making it look inconspicuous–except that at the far end of the dirt road, just after it reached past the end of our property, there was a noticeable dip. Read More

More Than Enough

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

We’ve written about Japanese property taxes a few times and in our JT column we once mentioned that the system for assessing property values and calculating the amount owed is complicated. Consequently, local governments, who do all this work based on laws implemented at the national level, sometimes make mistakes.

Apparently, the problem is even more widespread than we thought. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, between 2009 and 2011, 97 percent of local governments reported at least one case of overcharging for property taxes, though, of course, that would indicate there are probably many more cases. A recent issue of the tabloid-style weekly Friday interviewed an official from a support network for “asset preservation” who pointed out that property taxes are very different from income taxes in that they are completely determined by the authorities. With income taxes, at least the taxpayer can see how his taxes are calculated since he has the documents with all the pertinent information. But property taxes are determined by the local tax office and the property owner simply receives a bill every year saying how much he owes without any explanation of how the bill was calculated, and unless the taxpayer has knowledge about the property tax laws and how they may apply to his particular circumstances, he won’t know whether or not the amount charged might be wrong.

The extent of the problem was illustrated in a feature in the Oct. 5 Asahi Shimbun, which cited a number of recent high-profile cases. Last May, the owners of apartments in a complex in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, found out that they have been paying too much property tax for their units since the complex was built in 1972 by the then national housing corporation. Condominium values are assessed according to floor area, and almost all of the 600 units in the complex are about 63 square meters, but they also have verandas. The city tax office was including the verandas, which are about 8 square meters, into the assessment, but verandas are considered kyoyo, or common property, meaning they don’t belong to individual owners, but rather to all the owners, just like corridors and building foyers. The assessment for common property in a condo is divided up among all the owners but taxed at a much lower rate than property that is owned individually. Read More