Time’s up

Kobe 1997

Kobe 1997

While victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami continue to struggle with housing issues almost two years into their ordeal, a group of refugees from an earlier natural disaster has been given notice that they will soon be on their own. Ever since the 18th anniversary on Jan. 17 of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, various media have reported on the notifications distributed by local governments to residents of 6,600 rental units saying that they have two years to vacate their apartments. These people were living in public housing for low-income residents when the earthquake struck in 1995, and most of their dwellings were destroyed, so the governments of Hyogo Prefecture and six cities made contracts with private landlords. The residents paid as much rent as they could in accordance with their incomes and the local governments made up the rest. The deal was limited to 20 years, which means that between 2015 and 2017, depending on when they moved in, the tenants will have to move out of their current apartments, either to public housing or somewhere else. Most of these people are elderly, and the public housing (shiei jutaku) that has been built in the meantime tends to be located far from where they presently live. They are reluctant to move at their age, having formed bonds with their neighborhoods and their neighbors, which are extremely important in terms of mental and physical well-being.

The authorities say they have given the tenants ample notice. According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, announcements were first distributed in 2010, and the contracts the residents signed when they first moved is stipulated the 20-year limit, though supporters of the tenants point out that this term is vaguely stated and buried in small print. Most of the apartment buildings were hastily constructed by developers right after the earthquake in anticipation of just such a need for low-income housing. With local governments guaranteeing the rents of tenants, it was a virtual goldmine for landlords, which include semi-public housing juggernaut UR, and one can easily imagine that the landlords are fully supportive of the residents who are protesting the pending evictions since they themselves will lose revenue as a result–the rental housing market is not in good shape. The mayor of Nishinomiya recently received a petition with 3,251 signatures.

The local governments have said there’s nothing they can do about the situation since the 20-year limit is built into the civil code and Public Housing Law, even though the law itself was revised right after the earthquake to allow commercial properties to be used for public housing (kariage fukko jutaku). Some media, including the Japan Communist Party organ Akahata, mention that the controversy has ramifications for the current situation in Tohoku. As in Hyogo, private developers have been invited to build rental housing for people who lost homes to the tsunami or nuclear disaster, and apparently the authorities learned their lessons in Kobe because they are explaining to tenants that there is a 20-year limit. Of course, in Tohoku there are considerations that people in Kobe didn’t have to worry about, so at the moment a 20-year lease may be the least of their problems.

Damn shed

For sale? No thanks

For sale? No thanks

As we’ve looked at properties over the years we’ve invariably absorbed certain truths that don’t require statistics to verify. One of these is that Japanese single family homes are very large in proportion to the amount of land they occupy. I’m sure someone has done a study using ratios of land to floor area, and I’m also sure that Japan is probably high on the list of countries where the rate is the smallest. This situation, of course, explains the cramping not only in suburbs but in rural neighborhoods that undergo residential development. Another certain truth that may be more difficult to prove is that Japanese have more stuff in relation to the amount of storage space available. The clutter of residential subdivisions is mirrored by the clutter inside individual homes, but more to the point it is characterized by one particular item that almost every property features: the tool shed.

In Japanese they’re called monooki, which literally means a place to put things. Sheds are hardly unique to Japan, but because of the aforementioned cramped conditions they are unavoidable, ubiquitous eyesores. Most are grey and metallic, which is bad enough, but because land is such a premium and people who build houses naturally want at much interior space as they can get, sheds take up a great deal of whatever exterior space is left over. We have seen so many properties that looked OK, and then we looked out a window and–BAM!–there’s a shed blocking whatever vista that window might look out upon. And it doesn’t always belong to the property we’re checking. Once we were inspecting a house in Nishi Shiroi in a very well-tended residential neighborhood. The kitchen had a nice corner window that looked out on the leafy walkway that separated the rows of houses, but the scene was totally destroyed because the neighbor had erected a shed on the edge of his property that interfered with the view. Obviously, anyone who bought this house would have to contend with that big, grey box and we mentioned this to the realtor, and he pointed out, quite naturally, that there was nothing anyone could do about it since the shed was on someone else’s property. This seemed strange to us, because there are lots of local property laws that regulate what sort of windows you must install to protect privacy and how much sunlight you have a right to and where the driveway should be positioned so as not to bother neighbors, but there seems to be no law regulating the placement of monooki.

So we’ve concluded that it’s us, not everyone else, because sheds are so common it must mean people actually like them. (They need them to store tools? Most people don’t have gardens big enough to justify that many tools) Last week, we rode past a relatively new housing development with near-identical houses lined up in neat rows, and every one had an identical grey shed positioned in the exact same spot on the property, as if it were a standard fixture they were proud of. There is a house not far from where we live with what should be a pleasant southern exposure except that there is not one but two large sheds situated in front of what we assume is the living room sliding doors. The only reason we can think of for this unbelievably bad choice is that there is a public road to the south of the house and the occupants don’t want passers-by to look in their living room window. We understand their desire for greater privacy, but that’s why curtains were invented.

Back to the land

CIMG1953During the New Years break our house-hunting ambitions flagged a bit, and we started reassessing our priorities: What would happen if we went back to zero? In other words, we thought carefully about building our own house. The last time we did that, almost 20 years ago, we got burned, more because of our own ignorance than due to any concerted effort on the part of the real estate and construction industries. But we know more now and feel that we should at least explore the idea. For instance, we like the small houses built by A1 and they’re pretty cheap, so we could talk to them about our needs and what they can do to satisfy them. But first we would need to find a piece of land.

Though land prices have fallen since the bubble period, it’s still pretty expensive anywhere within, say, two hours of Tokyo. We’re not commuters so we don’t need to be on a main train line, but we do need to be on some train line. We started our search at the bottom, in two areas not that far from where we live and which we’ve come to know through our house-hunting inspections in the past year-and-a-half: northern Chiba along the Narita line, and south of where we live now, along the Keisei Hon-sen through Sakura. As it turned out there were more than a few very cheap properties that were still large enough for our purposes. By cheap, we’re talking ¥5 million or less, and for that price you definitely have to give up something. In some cases, the plot isn’t properly developed, meaning it may not have sewage or gas lines extended into the property itself. Also, cheap plots tend to be holdouts in sub-divisions that are already mostly filled, meaning no one wants them but the developer is desperate. The lot might be stuck in a dark corner of the neighborhood or have problems with access, which isn’t a concern for us because we don’t have a car, but sunlight is one of our priorities. Then there’s the state of the lot itself. Some appear to require a great deal of “preparation” before they could have a house constructed on them, and we have no idea how much that would cost. Read More