Put out

We recently received a DVD screener of “Sayonara UR,” a video documentary by Yumiko Hayakawa. The doc chronicles the situation of a group of residents of Bldg. 73 of the Takahamadai apartment complex in Hino, Tokyo, which is run by the semi-public housing concern UR. The structure was built in 1971 and Bldg. 73 did not meet earthquake standards that were made mandatory in 1981. The company was going to carry out reinforcement work, but in 2007 it announced that the work would cost too much and everyone was asked to move out. The company would help residents relocate to other UR apartments if they needed it. They would also compensate them in part if they agreed to move out within two years of the announcement. Nevertheless, some residents refused to move, saying that they were simply being made victims of UR’s well-publicized move toward privatization. Bldg. 73 was not profitable and so UR planned to tear it down and sell the land to a developer. The quake-proofing story, according to these tenants, was merely an excuse, and not a particularly believable one since there was no inspection made by third parties, even though the tenants asked for it.

It was a classic eviction tale, and Hayakawa clearly sided with the tenants. As advocacy journalism goes, “Sayonara UR” has its good points. Throughout the doc, she refers to UR as representing “social housing,” something she believes is essential to the well-being of a well-ordered and responsible society. UR, as noted thoroughly in our blog, is semi-public, which means their obligations as a public housing provider are limited, and Hayakawa is careful about this point. She shows how UR still uses a lot of tax money in its operations, and interviews an outspoken professor who describes how UR is a money sink, more than ¥1 trillion in the red. The government has been trying to find ways of setting the company free. One of the main reasons they can’t, as evidenced by this documentary, is that people who rent UR apartments, especially those who have lived there a long time, don’t want the company to be made 100 percent private. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that UR does not follow the extortionary practices private landlords are known for, such as charging extra fees–gift money and contract renewal fees–that have no purpose. Hayakawa doesn’t address these reasons or the lack of laws that would protect tenants, but she does an excellent job of interviewing all sides of the story and giving equal weight to each. However, viewers not familiar with Japan’s housing situation may mistakenly equate social housing with low-income housing, which it is not. It’s a difference Hayakawa neglects to clarify, and because she doesn’t specify how much rent these people pay some will think they are poor, when actually they are quite middle class. In fact, given their economic status and the superannuated state of their abodes (most public apartments built in the 1970s for families are less than 60 square meters), many viewers may wonder why these holdouts aren’t jumping at the chance to move to newer, cleaner apartments that will cost proportionately about the same. She also doesn’t clarify that only ten of the 250 households asked to leave refused to do so by June of 2010, when the topic was covered by TBS. By April of the next year, the number was down to 7.

This is not to say that UR was completely above-board. Hayakawa does a fine job of explaining the “ants to honey” mechanism behind government and semi-government projects, and how another reason the government can’t unload UR is that too many public servants have a stake in it. One architect she talked to said that the work could be done for half that estimate if all the various vultures were cut out. In any case, the whole quake-reinforcement strategy is clearly a sham, but the fact that it is doesn’t necessarily mean the building is a good place to live. Hayakawa gets a great money shot when, after being refused interviews repeatedly by UR’s PR department, she ambushes the president of UR as he’s walking to his car after work. He dismisses her dogged questions with patronizing answers, so you know he’s not being straightforward.

And he probably isn’t. Actually, what’s most distressing about the Bldg. 73 case, which has gone to court, is that if a judge finds that UR has the right to evict the remaining tenants because of the quake-proofing situation, it will set a precedent that could allow any landlord in Japan to evict tenants for similar reasons. That is the real issue. More importantly, the whole problem of affordable housing in Japan is perfectly crystallized in the circumstances of UR, but because Hayakawa is looking at an adversarial story she doesn’t explain this larger picture, which involves a government policy that no longer has any use for public housing, not to mention a housing environment in which renters and buyers settle for second-rate quality. It’s easy to sympathize with the residents who are interviewed and who say they don’t want to move, that this is their home; but, objectively speaking, I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.

For upcoming screening schedule (in Japanese) see here.

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