There are several grades of public housing in Japan. Most are really no different in terms of rent and quality from commercial housing, but local governments also provide low-rent public housing to people with low incomes. Obviously, getting into a low-rent public apartment unit is difficult: the criteria is strict and the waiting list usually long. However, once you’re in you’re in for good, regardless of any change in income over the years. This has something to do with Japanese housing laws, which, as explained elsewhere in this blog, make it very difficult for landlords and authorities to kick somebody out of a rental unit, even if they are delinquent in their payments. However, as shown by a recent case in Aichi Prefecture, it also has to do with the basic laziness of public officials.
On Mar. 24, the Aichi prefectural housing authority reported that as of Dec. 2007, there were 921 families or individuals living in low-income public housing whose respective combined household incomes exceeded the maximum levels allowed. The authority has said that it will ask these families and individuals to vacate their units within six months, because with the economic downturn the number of needy applicants has risen greatly and there is not enough low-income housing available.
In this case the cut-off income is ¥1.2 million (about $12,000) a month, which in any country would hardly qualify as “low income.” (Also, public employees are not allowed to live there.) Obviously, a family or individual will not be able to get into a low-income apartment with that kind of income. Usually, those accepted are simply taken from the bottom of the list of applicants–meaning applicants with the lowest incomes–but many people enjoy an increase in income after they move in and just don’t bother telling the authorities, who, in most cases, don’t even ask. Meanwhile, they pay rents that are well below market values, subsidized by local taxpayers.
One thing you need to keep in mind though is that this housing tends to be even more cramped and of poorer quality than your average Japanese dwelling. For instance, of the 921 households cited by Aichi, the highest income was recorded by a policeman and his working wife, who make a whopping ¥18 million a year, and yet live in a four-room, 40 square meter apartment for which they pay only ¥33,700 a month. One would assume that once your income rose above a certain level, you would want to move to a nicer place, but in many cases that’s not true. These people like the idea of paying low rent, even if it’s a dump. A friend of mine who used to live in a public apartment in Fukuoka once brought some Palestinian friends to her home. They were shocked and said, “This is even worse than the refugee camp I grew up in.”