Around the time the central government finally decided to declare a state of emergency to get people to stay indoors and help halt the spread of the coronavirus, we wondered if anyone would mention our pet peeve—tower condominiums—as an ideal residential accommodation for self-isolating individuals in Tokyo. The problem with living in a metropolis during an epidemic is that most people reside in collective housing, which makes it more difficult to not come into contact with others if you decide to emerge from your apartment. Consequently, the closer you are to the ground, the more insistent the urge to get some fresh air. High-rise apartment buildings make it that much more difficult to leave one’s home, since it requires getting into an elevator, which is the worst environment in a pandemic—cramped and unventilated—in order to come and go. So in a sense people who live in high-rises are already isolated to a certain degree, since, in our own experience as tower dwellers, such residents require more energy and initiative just to get out the door.
Novelist Jin Mayama doesn’t make this exact point in his essay for Asahi Shimbun that appeared April 18, but he comes close. He acknowledges that families will be trapped inside together for an indefinite period of time and hints that people in high-rises will be more stressed out owing to the cramped conditions. However, he sees this as a kind of opportunity, not so much for the residents, who are mostly stuck with their lot, especially if they bought their apartment, but rather for the rest of us who don’t live in high-rises. The epidemic puts the future of tower condominiums in a new light, or, maybe it would be better to say, a new shade.
Mayama predicts that the lot of tower condos will be strikingly similar to that of New Towns right now, which is that the latter have essentially become “slums.” Most of Mayama’s explanation mirrors what we’ve talked about at length in this blog, but it’s worth going through again for the sake of clarity. Collective housing is still a fairly recent trend in Japan, since it wasn’t anywhere near the norm, even in cities, before World War II. To him, the idea of collective housing as a social trend really took off in 1955, when the central housing authority started planning New Towns, which were based on a British idea but, physically, resembled Soviet apartment blocks. The New Towns were broadly covered by the media as being futuristic and progressive, and were instrumental in creating what was called “new families,” which, to Westerners, were basically nuclear families. Extended families, which had always been the norm and ideal in Japan, didn’t fit the new housing plan. Moreover, the New Towns epitomized the government’s drive to create a “100 million-strong middle class.”
The peak construction period for New Towns was the 1970s, and by the time the idea had run its course at the end of the bubble era, 2,000 had been built nationwide. Some fifty years later, the earliest New Towns are already superannuated and falling into ruin. That’s because the people who bought them when they first opened never moved out. And very few new people moved in over the years. Mayama doesn’t talk about this, but one of the reasons for this lack of mobility was not just limited incomes but also the lack of a model as a reference. In the U.S., for instance, its normal for people to scale up in housing as they gain employment, get married, and start a family; and then scale down after the nest is emptied. In Japan, after you buy a home, that’s where you live the rest of your life, which is one of the reasons why home values invariably go down.
So the reality now is that New Towns are hollowing out as their residents die off. With later condominiums, if the homeowners association is dedicated enough, 25-30 years down the line they may carry out large-scale renovation of their building. That’s what the “repair fund” (shuzenhi) they pay every month is for. (Though, in almost all cases, it usually isn’t enough and homeowners have to chip in a substantial amount of money to get the work done.) This never happened with most New Town apartment owners. The only solution would be to tear down the old buildings and build new ones with added units that can be sold to pay for construction, but that’s not going to happen when the average homeowner’s age is over 65.
A housing analyst tells Mayama that this same fate will likely befall tower condos in the future, despite obvious differences. Tower condos have more attractive layouts and are usually located close to transportation hubs. The building standards are much better. Logically, their value should remain fairly high for many years, but that isn’t really the problem, says the analyst.
Throughout Japan there are some 1,400 tower condo complexes, which are defined as being at least 20 stories high, comprising about 360,000 units. And there are plans to build even more. About 30 percent are in Tokyo, where they appeal to couples with relatively high incomes. A typical tower condo can contain 1,000 residents. The analyst reveals that employees of construction companies who build towers have told him that though they make a good living from such work, they themselves would never live in one. Their performance during disasters is one consideration (having less to do with the structure’s integrity than with the logistics of being high up and stranded), but what really worries them is that any collective renovations, no matter how small, are exponentially more expensive in a high-rise than in a conventional low-rise condo. Realtors and the media never tell potential buyers about this point, and developers purposely set the monthly repair fee low in order to attract buyers more readily. Consequently, it’s inevitable that 15 or 20 years in the future, the residents are going to be required to come up with a lot of money in order to just keep their building operational. For example, exterior rubberized sealant materials usually have to be replaced every 15 years. It’s impossible to build scaffolding to the upper floors of a tower, so replacing that sealant is going to be very expensive. After 20 years, the elevator may need to be replaced also, as well as the water pumping system. The price for both is much higher than it is for a low-rise building. Such costs will likely drive down the value of the property.
More to the point, a management expert says that homeowners associations in towers are notoriously difficult to manage, not only because there are more opinions to take into consideration, but because many tower condo units are bought for investment purposes (30 percent), meaning the owner doesn’t live in the building and likely won’t participate in management decisions. What usually happens in such cases is that these owners sell their units before a major repair is carried out in order to avoid the extra money charged to make up for the shortage in the collective repair fund. The new owner is thus stuck with that extra charge, which will be in the millions of yen, sometimes as much as ten million. Other problems unique to towers, especially the expensive ones in central Tokyo, is that they come with services like concierges and lobbies that have to be kept up at considerable cost, and over time the homeowners may decide it isn’t worth it any more.
Consequently, Mayama thinks that in 30-40 years time, these tower condos will become slums, filled with old people on pensions and attracting no new buyers. In a sense, it’s inevitable given the decline in population, but towers are still being built and sold because the trend is to move back into city centers in order to avoid long commutes. As long as couples can afford it now, they will opt for high-rise living, which they think of as being fashionable and convenient. Local government, in fact, encourage their construction, since they bring back residents who years earlier may have fled to suburban subdivisions. Mayama calls this trend “regional egoism.”
It remains to be seen how long the present pandemic continues and what effect it will have on residential buying trends, but if the coronavirus, or similar outbreaks, becomes something we are destined to live with on a daily basis, people may think more than twice about moving to areas where everyone is living closely in vertical housing, even if it is more convenient and “sustainable.”