It’s become an almost trite litany in the media: the poor become poorer and the rich richer, with the middle class mostly shrinking and absorbed by the former. The conventional narrative says that free market capitalism makes this so, as governments in the free world become “smaller” and thus less likely to regulate economic functions. But more fundamental to the issue is the idea that priorities are shifting away from the poor.
An article in the Dec. 3 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports on a survey completed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in September and just released to the public. The survey collected data from local governments regarding public buildings, including apartments and schools. One of the more startling statistics is 12,251, which represents the total number of these buildings that local governments throughout Japan, both prefectural and municipal, want to tear down. The estimated cost of this mass demolition would be ¥403.9 billion, a huge burden for municipalities, most of which are cash-strapped anyway. But the cost of maintaining these buildings is probably higher, since it’s an ongoing expense. The reasons local governments want to tear down these buildings is simple: they’re old–the average age is 41 years–and the population is expected to continue decreasing. This number doesn’t include buildings that will be renovated or replaced after they are destroyed. It’s only buildings that will be gone for good. At the time the survey was conducted, 40 percent of these buildings were in use, while 47 percent were not in use at all and were thus shuttered. As far as plans for demolition go, 32 percent will be torn down “within a year or two” while the fate of 41 percent was “not known” at the time.
It’s a huge number, but if you’re at all familiar with construction trends in Japan it’s probably not shocking. Just walk through any business district in Tokyo and marvel at how many new skyscrapers are going up, replacing other buildings that were put up only thirty or so years ago. Buildings in Japan are notoriously short-lived, and, of course, outside of the large cities there is even less reason for keeping buildings that no longer serve a function. Populations and tax bases continue to shrink, so there is no need to maintain a school that has no students, or a public housing project that’s only 30 percent full.
But the fact is, there is a shortage of low income public housing in Japan that continues to get worse. Granted, the problem is mainly in the major cities. In the greater Tokyo metro area, there are nine applications for every vacant public housing unit. In Tokyo itself, the ratio goes up to 30, and in Osaka it’s 17.5. Note that these projects are for low-income residents, meaning they can only qualify for housing if their household incomes are below a certain level, or if they have some other qualifying circumstance (single parent, disabled). According to the ministry survey, the largest portion of public buildings that are targeted for demolition in Japan is in the housing category–23 percent. In the countryside, it likely doesn’t matter, but as you get closer to cities it does, because more people qualify for and are seeking low-income public housing. So as the number of needy residents increases, the number of units would seem to be dropping. This, of course, is conjecture on our part, but we know that during his long tenure as governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara stopped building new public housing units, and in the past decade or so many low income public housing projects in Tokyo fell to wrecking crews. The ministry survey doesn’t address this part of the situation, so we don’t have proof.
But there is one area where low income housing isn’t being built but is acutely needed right now: the regions of northern Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. In the aftermath of the disaster refugees who either lost their homes outright or who were forced to evacuate their homes due to radiation have moved into temporary housing, either rental properties commandeered by the government in far-flung places, or makeshift structures set up specifically to house them. Originally, these people would be living in these residences for two years, but more than 1,000 days after the disaster, 80 percent are still in temporary quarters, much of which in the case of kasetsu (makeshift) structures is falling apart. The main problem is where to move these people. Many who owned their own houses before cannot afford to build new ones because the government won’t allow them to rebuild on their old property (either inundanted, unstable, or irradiated), and land that is available nearby is too expensive owing to market dynamics brought on by demand. Most likely they are still paying mortgages on the houses they lost. So it isn’t just people who were renting before who need permanent subsidized public housing. It is homeowners who lost everything and are still paying. But the promised buildings have not materialized. Miyagi Prefecture, to take the example of one local government, plans to build 15,700 units of public housing, but two years and nine months after the disaster, only 1 percent has been completed. The immediate problem is land availability, but the long-term and more intractable problem is lack of resources and initiative.
Japan is going through a short-term housing construction boom right now thanks to the consumption tax increase that goes into effect in April. Construction companies are short of skilled workers, and are using them for more profitable projects, such as single family homes, rather than public housing projects that don’t pay much. According to a recent report on NHK, the city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture has set aside a large tract of land for a new public housing project that was supposed to start construction last August, but no construction company even submitted a bid because the local government set the starting bid too low. Builders looked at the project and assumed they would likely lose money on it, so they didn’t even show up. Throughout the disaster area, there are plans to build more than 27,000 public housing units specifically for disaster victims, and by the end of September only 450 had been built. Right now more than 100,000 people are still living in temporary digs.
Will things change once the tax-inspired housing boom is finished and construction of single-family homes slumps again? Not likely. Tokyo needs those workers to build infrastructure and venues for the 2020 Olympics. The Tokyo government, as well as the central government–who has already expressed is feelings for the poor by recently tightening welfare requirements–is more than willing to pay top yen to get the city ready for the big event, which means other construction projects, those with lower priority, will be neglected, probably until the next decade, at the earliest. And public housing has the lowest priority of all.