The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is determined to increase the birth rate—last year it fell below 800,000, 10 years earlier than expected—by any means necessary, even going so far as to suggest raising the consumption tax in order to fund programs that would encourage young people to marry and procreate, which sounds not only desperate but eminently wrong-headed. Another head-scratcher is the proposal to forgive student loans to either spouse or both spouses in a marriage when they produce a child, an idea that opposition lawmakers have found risible for a variety of reasons.
Koichi Hagiuda, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy chief, has another idea: Give young couples, regardless of income, priority to enter low-rent public housing. Tokyo Shimbun reports that Hagiuda made the suggestion at a party meeting in Saitama, saying that the first order of business for newleyweds is finding a place to live. The thing is, the central government doesn’t manage housing for the general public. Public housing in Japan is only maintained at the prefectural and municipal levels, so the government would have to get them to agree to the proposal.
The party’s secretary-general, Toshimitsu Motegi, elaborated on the idea by saying that the usual upper income limitations would have to be waived for the proposal to work. He also said that initial estimates indicate such a program would cost about ¥150 billion, most of which would be spent on renovations of public housing. On January 30, Hagiuda explained in the Diet that the current income qualification for public housing applicants—household monthly income should not exceed ¥158,000—would have to be changed for newlyweds, but in any case he said it shouldn’t be a problem since there are 200,000 vacant public housing units nationwide.
What Hagiuda neglected to point out is the location of these 200,000 units. They aren’t in Tokyo, or in almost any other major city where most of the jobs are and where most young people want to live. They are in the countryside or otherwise remote areas, which is why they are vacant. As we’ve written a number of times, urban public housing is very much in demand. In Tokyo, qualified applicants can wait ten years or more for an available unit. Obviously, these apartments are not going to be available for newlyweds, who would need them right away, unless local authorities kick some families out. (Which they can do, since many households in public housing now have higher incomes than they did when they moved in, and according to the rules they are required to leave when their income reaches a certain level, but it takes a lot of effort to evict them if they don’t want to leave.)
However, problems with the scheme go further. One is, as Motegi pointed out, that many vacant units would require extensive renovation. There are 2.14 million public housing units in Japan, of which 1.8 million are currently occupied. As Hagiuda said, 200,000 vacant units are ready for tenants, meaning the rest need a lot of work. Some are even set to be demolished. As it stands, almost all public housing in Japan is old—70 percent is at least 30 years old. And while most units have been quake-proofed, any extensive repairs are likely to be beyond the financial capabilities of the pertinent local governments, so the central government would need to supply funds if they really want to carry out this newlywed plan.
But the more immediate question should be: If you renovate, will they come? Some local governments have already thought of this idea to raise the birth rate. Saitama Prefecture launched a program in 2016 called Happy Housing for Raising Children. Public housing would be made available to couples under the age of 40. Initially, 2,000 units were available for the plan. However, by 2019, only 40 percent were taken, and since then the prefecture has stopped taking applications.
Why wasn’t it as popular as expected? There’s, of course, the aforementioned issue of public housing units not being in places where people want to live. But Masahiro Yamada, a professor from Chuo University, brought up another one: nobody gets married with the idea that they are going to move into public housing. In Japan, most young people are still living with their parents when they get married. Their newlywed life is, in fact, the first time they live on their own, and for the most part they don’t want to move downward, so to speak. The uppermost consideration in their minds is: Will the place we move into be as nice as or better than my parents’ home? In most cases, public housing is seen as moving downward, so it isn’t a desirable option, even if it’s cheap. Yamada insists that if the government is thinking about financial obstacles to having children, they’d be better off closing the income gap and lowering education costs, especially for higher education. Public housing is not going to do much, especially given the reality that couples are going to try to buy a home as soon as possible.
Housing expert Yosuke Hirayama told Tokyo Shimbun that Hagiuda’s idea completely misses the point, mentioning, as we did, that the available public housinng units are located in inconvenient places, and they’re old (most lack elevators). Taking off from Yamada’s point, Hirayama says that one of the reasons young people remain in their parents’ home until they marry is that Japan’s housing policy does not take into consideration single persons. Public housing and, until only recently, semi-public housing run by UR traditionally do not rent to single persons, only to couples and families. This reality has become a huge problem because the portion of single-person households in Japan has grown considerably in the past few decades. Consequently, most young people never really gain experience living on their own, which helps them understand what’s necessary to get by. They go directly from being dependants to married status and, as Yamada said, they don’t want to lower their standard of living in the process, which is what public housing represents to them. Even if they did enter public housing they aren’t going to want to raise children there, so the only real benefit would be for them to be able to save money to buy a home big enough for kids, but that’s assuming a lot. The longer young couples wait to have children, the the lower the likelihood that they will have them.
When public housing was first implemented in the 1950s, a very large percentage of Japanese families were certifiably poor, so the government had to provide for them. This thinking persists: to local governments, only people who continually remain in the low-income layers of the economy need public housing. The main concern for local governments, however, is boosting their tax base, so they put more effort into policies that attract middle class families. They have no enthusiasm for maintaining public housing because lower income tenants add nothing to the value of their municipality or prefecture. It’s simply a social obligation, which is why most public housing is in bad shape. For the record, the city we live in has absolutely no public housing at all.
Hagiuda at least realizes this, which is why he knows the central government would have to contribute money to make these vacant units attractive to young people who, for all intents and purposes, have no desire to move into public housing, but the government also needs the help of local governments, who don’t seem to have the appetite, since they’re the ones who have to manage the facilities.