Suburban blight, Japanese-style

img_20161223_114702In our latest housing column for the Japan Times we talk about a new book by Chie Nozawa that explains in simple, clear terms why more and more abandoned homes, both houses and condos, will litter the landscape in coming years. She gives a lot of good examples of the kind of city planning, or, more precisely, lack of city planning, that has given rise to over-production of housing even as the population in general is shrinking and homes are left vacant.

Last week, she published an article in Gendai Business that summarizes and elaborates on the book. (Gendai is published by Kodansha, which also published her book) Her main thesis is that housing is “no longer” a financial asset, though we would probably argue that it never really has been. She points out that by 2033 one out of every three homes in Japan will be vacant, and that if nothing is done–either through demolition or some program to make more effective use of existing housing–there will be 21.5 million vacant homes in Japan. She give two reasons based on the fact that the huge boomer generation will be dying out in large numbers: 1) the homes the boomers have inherited from their own parents will be empty; 2) the homes the boomers built themselves will be empty because their own children built their own homes and thus have no reason to take those homes over. It seems almost redundant for her to mention that these homes, unless they are located in major cities on desirable land, have no value whatsoever. The homes that boomers now live in are old, and so their heirs cannot possibly move in or sell or rent them without extensive renovations, which is not liely to happen given the nature of the housing market, which is all about new things, as we pointed out in our column.

img_20161223_114841Thus, these properties have “negative value,” meaning regardless of whether the heirs tear them down or improve them, they will have to spend money that they will never see again because it will become increasingly difficult to sell or otherwise liquidate these properties, most of which are in the suburbs. And the more there are, the worse this problem gets.

This vacant house problem brings about what Nozawa calls the “sponge phenomenon.” In English parlance we might refer to it as the Swiss cheese effect: The suburbs of major cities, and even the cities themselves, become pocked with holes of vacancies that further erode surrounding property values and scare off younger potential homeowners, who gravitate instead to the nearest brand new ultra-cheap, ultra-cramped subdivision. Nozawa gives examples of regional capitals where this effect is already in full swing: 20.8 percent of the homes in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, are vacant.

img_20161223_114030Vacant housing comes in four types: rental housing that is presently uninhabited, vacant houses on sale, secondary housing (vacation homes, etc.) that is unoccupied almost all of the time, and abandoned housing, meaning not for rent or sale, merely empty. Nozawa provides statistics showing that of these four type, the last, abandoned housing, is increasing at the fastest rate. She also shows the direct relationship between the amount of new housing being built in a town or city, and that locality’s portion of vacant housing. In most cases the more building that’s happening, the higher the number of vacant homes. A few enterprising spirits are trying to address this problem. One local real estate company in Higashi Matsuyama, about 50 kilomters north of Tokyo, is actively buying up small lots in these sponge-like neighborhoods and combining adjacent ones to make larger lots that can accommodate larger houses, but in order to do that effectively the realtor has to locate the owners of land that in many cases has been abandoned for a long time, and often that means negotiating with more than one reluctant heir.

It’s not a problem that is going away any time soon, or even later.img_20161223_115303

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

Year zero (1)

CIMG3311Two weeks ago we received a phone call from N, the salesman at A-1 whom we worked with when we built our house. There was a young couple who were thinking of asking A-1 to build a house for them, but they hadn’t yet secured a piece of land. Apparently, their desires are similar to what ours were: an area that had a bit more nature than your average subdivision. They currently lived in Matsudo, which is about 45 minutes west of us.

The request was a surprise. A-1 doesn’t advertise, since advertising adds to their overhead and thus to the cost of their products. They don’t build model homes for the same reason. When a potential customer wants to get an idea firsthand of what their homes are like, they ask past, presumably satisfied customers if they can bring the potential customers in for an inspection. We did it ourselves when we started looking for homes and read about A-1’s philosophy and design concepts, and were impressed, much more so than with any manufacturer’s model home display. In A-1’s case, you get to see how the owner is actually living in the house designed for them.

However, we thought our home may have been too individualistic for this kind of tour. When N called we had just received the property tax bill for the house and land. Since we moved in after January 1, 2014, we didn’t have to worry about a tax bill for the house until this calendar year, and last summer, when a city official came to assess our property, he almost laughed, implying that what we had wasn’t really worth that much. The tax bill seemed to bear out that implication. The estimate for the house came to less than ¥50,000. Of course, that wasn’t based on an assessment of the market value of the house, but nonetheless, even if you take into account the special deduction that reduces the amount due on a building for tax purposes to one-sixth its assessed value, the assessment was much less than what we paid for it a year ago. We’re not sure what that means, but we do understand that our house is unusual and, perhaps, not the kind of thing that would attract the average buyer: the kitchen and bath are on the second floor, the bedroom on the first; few doors and walls. It was designed to be inexpensive and to satisfy our peculiar needs, so it wasn’t exactly marketable, especially when you compare it to the vast majority of Japanese homes, which, we assume, reflect market demand. We had to assume that N was bringing the couple here because of the environment–the surrounding woods and such–which would give them an idea of what A-1 could accomplish in such a place. 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.

Home Truths, August 2013

CIMG2664Here’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.

Move on up

CIMG2287Of the three prefectures adjoining Tokyo, Chiba is by far the cheapest in terms of real estate. It tends to rate on the dowdy end of the desirability index. Kanagawa remains the hippest because of places like Kamakura, Shonan, Yokohama; while Saitama, though often derided in popular culture as a suburban backwater (“Dasaitama”), was developed rather quickly owing to its size and convenient proximity to the capital. In fact, property values in northern Chiba along the Noda and Joban lines are comparable to Saitama’s. It’s when you get farther out on the Keisei and Sotobo/Uchibo lines that the suburbs become sparser and less expensive. Chiba is viewed as the sticks, which is just as well for us because it offers more affordable places within striking distance of where we live now.

Interestingly, one of the most expensive housing developments in Japan is in a relatively remote corner of Chiba. The Azumigaoka New Town is part of Chiba City’s Midori Ward, but the nearest train station is Toke on JR’s Sotobo Line, which means it’s practically in Ichihara. The exclusivity of portions of the new town development, coupled with the unusually large plots of land contained therein, have earned at least two subdivisions in the area–Prestige and One Hundred Hills–the nickname Chibaley Hills, a takeoff on Beverley Hills. We’ve never seen this neighborhood with our own eyes since, as with the real Beverley Hills, the residents discourage tourists and gawkers by restricting access. When it first opened the development got a lot of media attention, which in turn attracted motorcycle gangs, so now they have a patrol that politely keeps out pedestrians who have no business there. Nevertheless, you can find properties in the area on sale at almost any real estate portal site, and they remain pretty expensive, though certainly not as high as they were when they were first built during the bubble era. What’s considered a super luxury in Japan would be more or less upper middle class in the U.S., essentially backyards big enough to provide privacy, two or more bathrooms, and lots of windows and open floor plans. We even saw one property at a realtor’s site with a swimming pool. Read More

Tall order

Kimiko Uehara (Tokyo Shimbun)

More than a decade ago, we were following the situation in Kunitachi, Tokyo. A developer, Meiwa Jisho, wanted to build an 18-story condominium in the city and was being opposed by locals. As is often the case with public contretemps that go to court, we lost the thread and our attention fixed on something else. The case was initially interesting because it seemed like a good and rare example of locals standing up to a developer in a concerted, effective fashion. It’s not unusual for residents to protest buildings going up in their midst, but normally such protests are so parochial in impact and fruitless in purpose–involving anything from protection of “right to sunlight” to keeping out “undesirable” elements, like single women working in the so-called water trade–that, by themselves, they offer little that would help us understand the housing situation. The Kunitachi affair was different, and while we were interested in it we thought the residents might actually have a chance to prevail.

The outcome turned out to be more complicated. A recent article in Tokyo Shimbun profiled 63-year-old Kimiko Uehara, the one-time mayor of Kunitachi who was instrumental in bringing the suit against Meiwa. She has been out of politics for years now but is still involved in the Meiwa affair, except that now she is the target of a lawsuit–prosecuted by her fellow Kunitachians. Read More