Genesis

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Because Japan as a country didn’t make housing starts an integral part of its economy until after World War II, we’ve tended to believe that housing developments didn’t exist before the war, but, of course, that isn’t true. Recently we came across a 2009 article by a professor named Ken Shibata who teaches at Kyushu University’s graduate school. In it he describes several prewar housing developments.

Shibata writes from the standpoint that “suburbs in Japan are in trouble,” meaning that they are increasingly filled with vacant properties and are losing value along with residents. He blames the policy–which we’ve mentioned many times in our own blog–of focusing on new developments rather than maintaining existing ones, and he cites three prewar housing developments that today have good value even though they are quite old.

One is Denenchofu in Ota Ward, Tokyo, which sounds like a ringer. Denenchofu is famously upscale, with large, extremely expensive properties. Celebrities and rich executives live there. Though it’s not exactly Beverly Hills, it is as close to a Japanese cognate as you’re going to get. Another, more down-to-earth housing development is Tokiwadai in Itabashi Ward, which was first developed more than 80 years ago. Both these neighborhoods are in Tokyo proper, and even though they were relatively rural areas at the time they were first built, right now they have high property values simply because of their location and not so much because of the quality of their housing stock. Read More

“Semi” isn’t in it

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The Feb. 21 Media Mix column in the Japan Times, which we also write, is about the money scandal surrounding Liberal Democratic Party member Akira Amari that forced him to resign his cabinet position. The scandal involved a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, which wanted to shake down the Urban Renaissance Agency for a large amount of compensation, since part of the company’s “offices” had to move due to a road construction project that UR was carrying out with the Chiba Prefecture authorities. Takeshi Isshiki, ostensibly an official with the construction company, told various media how he had paid money to Amari and his secretaries so that they would use their influence to get as much money as possible out of UR. One of the themes of the column is that UR, which is called a “semi-private” or “semi-public” organization, depending on which angle you look at if from, is an entrenched bureacratic entity beholden to the government for its very existence. It started out as the Japan Housing Corporation, a clearly entrenched bureaucratic entity, which built lots of housing developments in the years after World War II with government money. Since the end of the bubble era, it hasn’t done much of that and has sunken deeper into debt. Without much purpose in life except collecting rent on UR apartments, UR is seen as a pointless enterprise now and several administrations have tried to privatize it, but UR has resisted because being in the government guarantees incomes. Thrown on the mercy of the market, most of its employees would lose their jobs, or make less money.

The information we used to make these points in the column was taken from an article in Gendai Business written by Yoichi Takahashi, a former finance ministry economist who knows a thing or two about how bureaucracies work and bureaucrats think. His point is that the scandal would never have happened if UR weren’t involved. Had the road construction project been carried out by a genuine private concern, or even by the Chiba Prefecture government by itself, it would have been more difficult for the construction company to extort money, and, in any case, Amari wouldn’t have had as much pull in any related negotiations. But because UR occupies a shaky position vis-a-vis the government, it easily bends to pressure from that government, especially a cabinet member. Read More

Condomanic-depressive

DSCF2154Last week the media reported that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism was devising a plan to limit the number of abandoned houses and apartments in Japan to no more than 4 million by fiscal 2025. As of 2013, the year the results of the last ministry 5-year survey were released, the number of vacant homes in Japan was estimated to be 8.19 million, about 40 percent of which–3.18 million–were not on sale or for rent. At the present rate, the number of abandoned abodes would rise to 5 million by 2025, so the ministry has decided to put into effect measures to bring down that number. They will announce these measures in March.

According to reports, the plan would involve “putting some abandoned houses and apartments back on the market and removing others,” as well as “offering such houses and apartments to low-income earners and families with children.” In addition, the government would also promote “the replacement of aging condominiums.” Any of these measures would require a much larger existing home market, which was worth about ¥4 trillion in 2013. The ministry thinks it can boost it to ¥8 trillion by 2025 and increase the remodeling and renewal market from ¥7 to ¥12 trillion. Since there would be no attendant increase in the population, the new home market would probably have to decrease in order for these targets to make sense; that and salaries would have to see a boost.

Since new housing starts has always been a chief economic motivator in Japan, it’s difficult to imagine that the government would do anything to discourage new home construction, and as long as it’s a priority it will be difficult to reduce the vacant home problem. For one thing, only new home buyers get tax breaks. More to the point, while the problem of abandoned single-family homes can be addressed in a relatively direct fashion–either fix them up to make them sellable or tear them down–the problem of abandoned units of collective housing is not so simple. For one thing, in order for a building to be rebuilt or “replaced,” four-fifths of the owners of the building’s units must approve, and that’s a hard portion to reach, especially given the fact that a lot of condo owners do not live in their units but rather rent them out. According to Yomiuri Shimbun, the government is thinking of changing the law so that absentee owners of condo units can be ignored if for whatever reason they do not participate in the vote for rebuilding. Read More

Fill ’em up

DSCF3268The central government is supposedly working on new measures to deal with the ballooning vacant home problem, and it’s no secret they would prefer local governments handle the matter, even though most local governments don’t have any extra money to throw at it. Recent media reports, however, indicate that Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture, is working on a very ambitious program for not only addressing the vacant home problem, but increasing the city population at the same time.

According to a 2013 survey, the vacancy rate in Maebashi is 15.9 percent, which is higher than the national average of 13.5 percent. Officials decided they had to do something about it and boldly earmarked a ¥200 million budget program. The idea is that the owner or purchaser of a vacated property receives subsidies for renovating an existing structure. Under such circumstances, the owner would receive either ¥1 million from the city or one-third of the cost of renovation, whichever is higher.

Other local governments have similar programs, but what makes Maebashi’s different is the “special cases” that offer even more money. For instance, the city will pay a resident of Maebashi ¥200,000 toward the renovation of a vacant home if it is within one kilometer of the person’s parents’ home, thus encouraging the children of elderly or soon-to-be-elderly city residents to be in close proximity so as to be able to take care of them. In the same spirit, ¥200,000 extra will also be given to people who renovate a vacant property into a two-generation abode as well as to extended families who tear down a vacant house and replace it with a new two-generation home. Read More

Home Truths for April 2015

HereCIMG3976 is our latest Home Truths column, about public housing in Japan and, more specifically, Tokyo. One point inadvertently removed during the editing process is that Tokyo’s public housing system is called toei jutaku. Koei jutaku is a general term for all public housing, anywhere. Kuei jutaku is public housing facilities run by an individual city ward (ku), etc.

Low priorities

DSCF2013It’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. Read More

The burden of expectations (4)

CIMG2562As quickly as we could we collected the necessary documents for JA. Since they asked for three years’ worth of tax information we not only had to go back to the Narita tax bureau, we had to go into Tokyo to ask for proof of local taxes that we paid to Arakawa Ward for the first half of 2011, since that’s where we were living. Also proof of health insurance payments. We wondered what we would have had to do if we’d moved much farther away. As it was, going into Tokyo was enough of a pain in the ass since the different offices always seem to be crowded.

We submitted all the documents to the loan officer, who said it would take a few weeks for them to look through them but he had already assured us we were good. At this point a curious thought occurred to us. We had told A-1 that we were going to borrow money from JA. We expected N to act put out since he had gone to the trouble of introducing us to SBI, but in the end he didn’t really care. As long as we had the money he couldn’t complain. But, in actuality, we didn’t have the money, and wouldn’t for a long time. A lending institution won’t transfer the funds attached to a loan for a new home, meaning one that is being occupied for the first time, until the home is ready to be occupied, and in our case that wouldn’t be until Christmas at the earliest. In fact, we hadn’t signed the contract with A-1 yet, though it had been drawn up. The sticking point for us was the payment schedule. First we had to pay the design fee up front, which was about half a million yen. Then when we sign the contract, we pay a portion of the construction cost, almost a third. And then, when the roof beams have been completed, about two months into contruction, we pay another third. The last payment is made when the house is completed. So that means before the money for the loan is transferred into our account, we have to pay two-thirds of the cost of the house on top of the money we had to shell out for the land. If we had bought a house already completed, then it would be no problem, but we’re having it built. In our case it isn’t that bad because we had initially planned to pay cash for everything, land and house, until we realized that we would have to increase our budget if we wanted to own a place that fit our minimum conditions and needs. So we do have enough cash to make all the payments. It’s just that we will be broke until the loan comes through. But what about people who don’t have that much cash on hand, people who are borrowing almost all of the money needed to build their houses? What if they’re buying a condo based on a design, meaning the actual structure won’t be completed for another year or two? Again, if you’re working with a developer or a builder, they will make everything as smooth as possible, since they will likely be working hand-in-hand with a lending institution. For people like us who are doing everything themselves, there are special intermediary loans called tsunagi-yushi that you can take out to make the initial and mid-term payments, but they require another screening process and often have higher interest rates. Since they’re usually paid back when the housing loan comes through the payments don’t last long, but during that period if the borrower is, say, paying rent, it could be a real burden, depending on how long it takes to put up the house or condo. So that’s another expense you might have to deal with if you’re building a house. Read More