Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about the Chiba New Town development project, where we happen to live. To clarify something that may not be apparent in the article, it’s a very nice place to live. As pointed out, the people who reside here enjoy a mix of urban convenience and unspoiled nature, though one of the points we tried to make is that if the New Town scheme had gone ahead as originally planned, it might have been more congested and less attractive, but it was never going to happen that way because of the area and the way it was developed. As it is, the urban sectors have plenty of well laid-out parks, the roads are all lined with wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes (which few people use since everyone drives), there are plenty of retail outlets offering a wide variety of very cheap merchandise, and just minutes’ walk from any station in the NT area you are in deep countryside: rice paddies surrounded by well-kept forests. And while the Hokuso Line is expensive, it is extremely convenient to both central Tokyo (one hour to Nihohbashi without transfer) and Narita Airport (20 minutes), and, probably because it is expensive, it’s never crowded.
Based on a rough survey of the land being developed now for residential homes, lots of approximately 200 square meters will be going for ¥10-15 million, or about ¥50,000 per square meter. So far, tracts being prepared are located 10 to 25 minutes by foot from Inzai Makinohara Station. We haven’t seen too much land being prepared near other stations. When the project started in the 70s, condominiums were promoted, and there are still some large condo complexes near the various stations in the NT area that have vacant units. One, called Doors near Inzai Makinohara Station (five minutes), is only about half filled. Apartments were first put on sale more than two years ago, and since then the developer has decreased the price at least twice, which probably upsets people who already bought. You can get a brand new condo of 70 square meters for only ¥19 million, but if you go a little farther from the station you can probably have a house built for less than ¥10 million more than that. UR, who will be selling most of these plots to real estate and housing companies, will want to get as much money as possible in order to pay down its debt, but with so much being developed at one time and demand unknown, it’s likely that those prices will come down in a short period of time. Chiba, of course, is the cheapest place to live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and since its population decreases every year, it will become even cheaper just for that reason. Though the New Town has been a failure in terms of what a New Town is supposed to accomplish fiscally, Chiba New Town is a reasonably priced, attractive alternative to its counterparts in other places in the Kanto area. And now that we think about it, maybe that’s the reason Inzai was selected as the most comfortable city in Japan.
Earlier this week the national tax agency announced that, on average, land values throughout Japan went down 1.8 percent, raising hopes in financial circles since it’s the lowest drop in a long time. Any sign that the economy is improving is given a lot of play in the media, though a closer reading of the statistics indicates it may not be what it seems. As almost all the stories point out, the main brake on the drop in property values was the sudden surge in sales of luxury condos in the major cities. If you discount those sales, much of which is being spurred by overseas investors, the drop in value is pretty much the same as it’s been for the past decade or so. In Asahi Shimbun’s coverage, a reporter talked to a 37-year-old salaried worker who was looking to buy a used condominium in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. He found one that was very cheap and only 10 minutes from Motoyawara Station, but was disappointed by the “undeveloped” quality of the neighborhood. A local realtor told the reporter that his business has not changed at all. Property values in the area are 4.7 percent less than they were a year ago, when the values were 4.4 percent less than they were in 2011. “The only place that’s any good is the center of Tokyo,” he said.
Another realtor in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, told the paper that the value of properties near the main train station declined 3.8 percent over the previous year, and he didn’t sound hopeful, citing the fact that there has been no increase in the last year of “inquiries for home remodelings” that actually lead to contracts for work. “That’s because nobody’s income has increased.” The media was expecting a rush on home sales prior to the increase in the consumption tax next April, and until May, housing starts rose year-on-year for nine months straight. That statistic may go south, however, since there is a suspicion that interest rates will also go up in line with the government’s monetary easing policy, thus discouraging some potential new homeowners. Almost everyone Asahi talked to, from realtors to securities analysts, believe that the situation won’t change significantly unless average people start making more money.
Though we miss living in Tokyo, especially shitamachi, we don’t really miss the highrise kodan where we spent eleven years. Until the earthquake our main complaint was the mostly insular nature of highrise life, the feeling that it was always difficult to get in and out, but during those weeks after the temblor it became a nerve-wracking experience, even as we became convinced that the structure was safe. We wrote a number of posts here about that experience and even one related column for the Japan Times (though it seems to have been taken off the JT site). For a while the media and the market seemed to concur with us that highrises may not be a wise option for a city that could be hit with its own big earthquake at any time, but eventually fears subsided and highrise condos started selling again; quite well, in fact, so we assumed our fears were just our own and didn’t extend to the general population. Even Tsutomu Yamashita, a housing journalist who is unusually frank about these sorts of matters, has come around and said that investing in a highrise Tokyo condo is a good idea since they’ve become even safer since the quake.
A recent article in Aera, however, has confirmed our initial sentiments. Opening with a frightening “what-if” scenario describing a 7.3 magnitude quake happening under the capital, the feature makes the case that even though these highrises will not collapse, life will essentially be impossible in them indefinitely. The most immediate concern, and the one that made the biggest impression on us in the aftermath of the 311 quake, whose epicenter was hundreds of kilometers away, was the loss of elevators, which shut down automatically when a building shakes. According to law, they can only be turned on by a certified technician, which means even when the shaking stops residents will have to wait for that technician to show up, and he may be inspecting other highrises. This problem multiplies with the intensity of the jolt. And if the quake is strong enough to knock out electricity, then the elevator problem is exacerbated. Under such circumstances, the residents on higher floors become like “people stranded on the top of a mountain in bad weather.” The idea of walking down and then up emergency stairways to run errands or whatever is just impractical, and virtually impossible for the elderly, the handicapped, and pregnant women. Most highrises have emergency generators, but these are for contingencies and thus only have enough power for maybe two hours. So if the elevators are out due to loss of power, that means the stairways are also dark. And even if the building structure is sound, some elements, such as doorframes, could be compromised, making it difficult to get out of an apartment. All highrises have emrgency ladders connecting verandas for use during fires, but it will be very difficult to use them to get all the way to the ground. The Tokyo metropolitan government has said that in the event of a major quake their estimate is that it will take at least a week to recover electrical power. Also, highrise residents will likely be lower down on the list of people receiving attention during rescue operations because of the difficulty for crews to access higher floors. Emergency services will first attend to victims they can reach more easily. Read More
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.
Ever since the March 2011 earthquake, Tokyo has been reassessing its disaster preparedness policies with mixed results. Though the residents of the city have definitely become more knowledgeable about their vulnerability and what needs to be done to save as many lives as possible in the event of a major quake, not much, in fact, has been done, owing mainly to the usual issues involving private property versus public responsibility. Tens of thousands of old wooden houses, packed tightly together in some neighborhoods, are basically kindling for the inevitable conflagrations that will start after an earthquake hits. Since the local government doesn’t feel it can force these people to move or rebuild their houses (which would, in accordance with zoning laws that have gone into effect since they were originally built, force them to construct smaller abodes then they already occupy) their dire prediction falls on deaf ears. Libertarians and individuals with fond feelings about Tokyo’s uniquely quaint neighborhoods condemn any sort of regulatory move that would change the character of those neighborhoods, but it’s clear that these neighborhoods, as well as the people who live in them, won’t survive a big quake. They didn’t survive the 1923 quake, and the situation isn’t really that much different.
The same seems to go for condominiums and apartments, though in a different way. Late last year, the Tokyo government sent out questionnaires to building management companies and condo owner associations to determine the status of quake-proofing for collective housing in the city. Owner-occupied and rental combined, Tokyo has some 132,600 multi-resident buildings, 24,000 of which were built before 1981 when stricter quake-proofing standards went into effect. About 52,000 questionnaires were sent out, and one-tenth were completed and returned. Of these, only 11 percent said that their buildings have been inspected for structural integrity–17 percent for condos and 6 percent for rental apartments. Another 8 percent said they “planned to carry out inspections,” while 9 percent plan to “discuss the matter.” Sixty-three percent responded that they have no plans to do anything. Among the buildings that did carry out inspections, 60 percent were told that they needed “further reinforcements,” but only 4 percent have actually carried out any reinforcement work. Read More
We’ve always been interested in town houses and are still thinking of dedicating a Japan Times column to them. Town houses were briefly popular in the late 70s and early 80s. Japan has always had an indigenous town house, called nagaya or machiya depending on which part of the country you’re in, but the structures called “town houses” in English (sometimes “terrace houses”) were more like their Western cognates: two-story structures with walls adjoining their neighbors. In urban environments town houses offer more effective utilization of land than normal detached houses while providing a similar level of creature comfort. However, once land prices skyrocketed in the mid-80s town houses were considered economically inefficient, even in the suburbs, which is where you normally found them anyway. Everybody started building condos with boxy floor plans in order to get as much cash out of a block of air as possible. Every so often we come across an old town house on sale and check it out, but because of their relative scarcity they tend to be overpriced. Of course, “overpriced” is all a matter of perception. Because town houses are relatively unusual, owners think that makes them more valuable, but they’re still old and always need a lot of work, as much as a detached house of the same vintage does if it hasn’t been renovated (and usually they haven’t been). A few weeks ago, as a matter of fact, we were amused to see a listing in which town houses were qualified as being “popular.” They aren’t, at least not in the general definition of the word. They are simply “rare,” which means it’s assumed some people will pay a bit more to have one. Read More
Here is this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, about pets. Though we have two cats ourselves, and basically believe that anyone who has a pet should be able to live where they want, we’re not entirely comfortable with the increasingly open acceptance of pets in collective residences. As we suggest several times, it’s a two-way street. Tenants and condo owners who do not demonstrate sufficient understanding of what it means to have an animal companion should not have them, though we’re not sure how that point can be driven home in a way that doesn’t discriminate against people who do demonstrate responsibility and understanding. Is it right to keep large dogs in small apartments? Should all dog owners who live in collective housing be obliged to train their pets? Should cats be confined indoors or allowed to roam free, and if the latter is allowed, should they be required to be spayed/neutered? Rules are unavoidable, but education is essential.