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

Field diary: Yukarigaoka

Monorail at rest

Centrally planned communities have been around in Japan since the 60s with the advent of the “new town” movement, based on the similarly named British social housing policy. The idea is that housing and commerce are engineered to work together. Theoreticians of the Jane Jacobs school of organic urban environments may look down on the concept because of its artificiality: everything is supposed to work because it’s been programmed carefully beforehand. The new towns we’ve looked at in Japan are predictably old-fashioned, like snapshots of the 60s and 70s but ones that evoke no feelings of warm nostalgia except for so-called kodan otaku (public housing freaks). They just look old, mainly because most of the people living in them are old, but also because they are simply superannuated. Though the term “public housing” needs to be qualified in the case of new towns, for the most part the architecture and design of the communities were carried out by public or semi-public entities, and today the buildings and neighborhoods still have a utilitarian quality that many people find quaint at best, ugly at worst. It all depends on what’s been done with the residences in the meantime.

Yukarigaoka, a community in the north-central Chiba city of Sakura, isn’t stricly speaking a “new town,” but it was extensively planned. The difference is that the planning was done by a private company, Yamaman, which started out as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951. They moved their headquarters to Tokyo in 1965 and for the next ten years became a full-scale real estate developer for residential communities. Their first large-scale project was in Yokosuka, a project that was historically notable for being the first Japanese address written in katakana. They started the Yukarigaoka project in 1971, and even after the initial development phase was completed, have stayed on for the expansion, which continues today. The first sale of single-family homes was in 1979, the first condominium in 1982, the same year they opened a monorail that circled the project and connected to the Keisei Honsen train line. In fact, they convinced Keisei to build a new station just for the community called Yukarigaoka. Naturally, the company had to work closely with the Sakura municipal government in order to purchase land for development, but they also built the area as a community with a future. According to one of the company’s real estate agents, Yukarigaoka is the only similarly sized project in Japan completely overseen by a private company. Because it’s built on a hilly plateau with lots of farmland, the usual expanses of cramped housing developments are broken up by huge swaths of green forests and fields. (Though public parks are relatively scarce.) It has its own “downtown” with a major city hotel and department store complex. There’s even a university with one of the most attractive campuses we’ve ever seen. Read More

NHK looks at ‘akiya’ problem

Last Wednesday, NHK’s in-depth news series, Closeup Gendai, covered the issue of abandoned houses (akiya) in Japan, a topic we’ve addressed several times on this blog. Though the report left out a number of points that we think are essential to the discussion, there is only so much NHK can cover in half an hour, and what they did cover was well considered. Of the major broadcast media, perhaps only NHK can do this since they do not have to worry about offending advertisers. Right now house manufacturers and developers, both of which rely on new housing construction for their livelihoods, buy huge amounts of broadcast time. Certainly the most important point that NHK made in the report is that the nation’s focus on new housing as a means of keeping the economy afloat is not sustainable.

The program reiterated a lot of statistics that we’ve already reported, in particular the figure of 7.57 million homes–single-family houses and condos–that stand vacant in Japan. That’s 13 percent of all residences. Of these, 1.81 million are classifed as being abandoned, meaning not only are they vacant, they are not for sale or rent either. They are just sitting there, about to collapse, all the while attracting garbage and arsonists. Thus they are not only eyesores but safety hazards, and the source of complaints by neighbors, who ask their local governments to do something about them. As we discussed in an earlier post, some localities have passed regulations that allow them to confront the problem, which is difficult to do because, as NHK pointed out, there is a “taboo” against public entities forcing themselves into matters having to do with private property. The model of this new public action is the city of Daisen in Akita Prefecture, where, as of 2011, there were 1,415 akiya. The problem was so bad that the city passed a law allowing authorities to demand of owners that such firetraps be torn down and if the owner did not respond then the city can move in a carry out the demolition itself. Sixty-one houses were initially targeted for action, but so far only two have actually been torn down. The main problem is locating the owners. As it turns out, many have never even registered the properties, which, of course, is illegal, and the first question that we thought of was: If a house was not on the city rolls, it means the owner never payed property taxes, so what was the city doing all these years? NHK didn’t ask that question. It did find the owner of one derelict house who said he had inherited it from his aunt but didn’t have the money (¥700,000) to tear it down. He thought he might be able to sell the land and then use the proceeds to pay for demolition, but he couldn’t find a buyer. So the city tore the house down and, presumably, absorbed the cost. Though the program didn’t say as much, it seems obvious that such a small city cannot afford to tear down every abandoned house in its jurisdiction. Read More

Home Truths, April ’12

Minami Senju

Here’s this month’s Home Truths column, which is about cramped urban neighborhoods that could turn into death traps in the event of a major earthquake. Though much is made in the column about the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s measures to address this problem, we don’t really think it will make much of a difference. Anyone who has read Edward Seidensticker’s fascinating, peculiar, and often frustrating history of the city will understand one thing, that Tokyo defies any notion of city planning with an almost rabid resolution. The “low city” that is Seidensticker’s main subject is portrayed as an organic entity, one that resists any foreign (i.e., governmental) claim to its control as if it were a virus. Most of these neighborhoods sprang up almost overnight after disasters devastated other portions of shitamachi. Working class people moved on to farmland in the outer portions of the city because the place they used to live was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire, or American bombs. Economies of necessity superseded any authoritative prerogatives and communities were born. Those communities are still there. Romantic types love these neighborhoods because they represent what it is they appreciate most about Tokyo, its makeshift conviviality and resistance to conventional ideas of city order. And because those neighborhoods did develop organically, they really do characterize the urban experience in its purest form. But part of the appeal has to do with that hoariest of Japanese cliches, the beauty of transience. These neighborhoods were created by disaster and they will disappear by disaster again. The authorities’ means of addressing this situation may seem flat-footed and ill-advised, but the reasoning is unassailable. In their present state, these neighborhoods will go under, and they will take their inhabitants with them. Maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about that, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least think about it.

Negative legacies

We’ve often talked about how the media has glossed over the worsening housing crisis. Though newspapers, magazines, and TV will occasionally run stories about specific cases of foreclosure in order to illustrate structual economic problems, they almost never connect these examples to the structural problems inherent in the nation’s housing policy, which hasn’t really changed for forty years. Our feeling is that the media itself has too much at stake in terms of advertising to point out these structural problems and that, fundamentally, the idea that new housing fuels the economy as a whole is so unassailable that it doesn’t even occur to many reporters that problems related to housing could be systemic and related to other social problems. But a few weeks ago, Shukan Bunshun ran an article that reflected, at least in part, much of what we’ve been trying to explain on this blog.

The article was about properties as legacies, which most people tend to view as “assets.” However, the reporter discovered that in many cases properties have turned out to be considerable liabilities for heirs, some of whom would prefer not inheriting them at all. The first illustration they give is the most potent. A 53-year-old man who lives and works in Tokyo recently traveled to his home town in Hiroshima Prefecture to dispose of his parents’ house, a 50-year-old wooden structure built on a steep grade. His father died six years ago and his mother, who suffers from dementia, entered a nursing home two years ago. The house is in disrepair and the small piece of land around it is overgrown with vegetation. The neighbors have repeatedly complained to local authorities, and the son understands that he has to do something. He decided to tear the structure down, but the lowest demolition estimate he could get was ¥2 million, owing to the fact that access to the property is difficult. Since he had no intention of using the land and couldn’t afford the demolition, he put it off. One could reasonably assume the cost might have been covered by selling the land, but that was another problem. The title was still under his father’s name, which meant, according to the law, it belonged to his mother. Since she was not legally competent to handle the matter, it fell to the next in line, his older brother, who had been estranged from the family for many years. No one knew how to get in touch with him. So in order for the second son to dispose of the property, he would first have to go to court to assume title, a process that would require a great deal of time and money, neither of which he had. Meanwhile, the neighbors become more angry, but the local authorities can’t do anything. Read More

Unreal estate

“Property prices go up and down, but the main thing is not to pay them a blind bit of notice, unless and until you have a good reason to move. I learnt that a rising price will not rise forever; that when prices stop rising, it will be difficult to sell your flat, because the reason the price has stopped rising is because the climate has changed. The money you have in your house is not liquid money; it’s not money which can easily be converted into something else other than your house. It’s stupid to feel richer beause the value of your house has gone up, since the resulting rise almost always isn’t money you can use or spend. If you’re going to move, you still need somewhere to live, and the cost of that place too will have gone up, so there will be no net gain from the increase in your property’s value.”

In the above passage from his book about the credit crunch, I.O.U., John Lanchester is mainly talking about the United Kingdom, where he lives. However, his remark about needing somewhere to live and the notion that property value means little in the world where most people do live has stayed with me. Elsewhere in the book he tosses off the idea that the value of your house or apartment or land is only as much as the other guy is willing to pay you for it, in the end. Read More

Last resorts: Izu division

CI Villa

Last weekend TBS ran a long report on resort condos on the Izu Peninsula, focusing mainly on the Atsukawa Onsen region. The hook for the piece was an advertisement for a ¥20,000 condo. That may not sound like much of a bargain, but we’re talking sale here, not rent. The reporter visited the CI Villa condo, which is only 20 years old and commands a beautiful view of the Pacific. He wasn’t allowed to inspect the unit being advertised but he was able to visit another one of comparable size (43 square meters) and age. In any event, while the sale price turned out to be the real thing there were strings attached. The buyer would also have to pay more than ¥3 million in unpaid management and repair fees that have accumulated during the years since the unit was abandoned by its owner and seized by the authorities. And then, of course, the new owner would have to start paying these fees at a rate of ¥30,000 a month.

As the reporter pointed out after learning all this, the condo is still a bargain. Not only does it come with a view, but the management fees entitle the owner to use the building’s elaborate spa facilities, swimming pools, and other amenities. He thought the place was a steal, but as he started talking to local residents and public officials he came to understand why no one was snatching up these low-priced properties (there were quite a few, and not just in CI Villa). He remembered the TV drama series, “Zeni no Hana,” that aired many years ago and which was set in this particular town. It was a huge hit and sparked a travel boom to Atsukawa and in turn a building craze. About half the residences in the region were built after 1975, with construction peaking during the late 80s bubble period. The average price of a condo in CI Villa when it was new ranged between ¥40 and ¥50 million.

Of course, the end of the bubble also ended all that. One local merchant estimated that the number of tourists who come to the town is about “one-hundredth” of what it was during the peak times. And as more and more businesses who relied on these tourists left, the town fell into disrepair. Many people, it seems, do come down with an eye to buy property, most of which is in good condition, but once they see the boarded up shops and derelict infrastructure they get discouraged. The mayor said that the year-round population has aged even more quickly than the national average, and that welfare costs have increased six-fold since 1990. Because the tax base is so small, the town can’t keep up appearances. It’s a vicious cycle. One solution would be to exploit the region’s hot springs to produce and sell geothermal power. The temperature of the onsen approaches 100 degrees, and since local inns only need 50 degrees, the town thinks it could transform those wasted 50 degrees into revenues. The problem is that inn owners, who constitute the biggest block of business interests, are basically wary of geothermal, mainly because they think, wrongly, that it will sap the long-term onsen capabilities. One told the reporter that he had doubts about the local government’s belief that tourists would flock to the area out of curiosity and a desire to support such an environmentally effective project. Apparently, other onsen regions have had some success with such an endeavor.

Put out

We recently received a DVD screener of “Sayonara UR,” a video documentary by Yumiko Hayakawa. The doc chronicles the situation of a group of residents of Bldg. 73 of the Takahamadai apartment complex in Hino, Tokyo, which is run by the semi-public housing concern UR. The structure was built in 1971 and Bldg. 73 did not meet earthquake standards that were made mandatory in 1981. The company was going to carry out reinforcement work, but in 2007 it announced that the work would cost too much and everyone was asked to move out. The company would help residents relocate to other UR apartments if they needed it. They would also compensate them in part if they agreed to move out within two years of the announcement. Nevertheless, some residents refused to move, saying that they were simply being made victims of UR’s well-publicized move toward privatization. Bldg. 73 was not profitable and so UR planned to tear it down and sell the land to a developer. The quake-proofing story, according to these tenants, was merely an excuse, and not a particularly believable one since there was no inspection made by third parties, even though the tenants asked for it.

It was a classic eviction tale, and Hayakawa clearly sided with the tenants. As advocacy journalism goes, “Sayonara UR” has its good points. Throughout the doc, she refers to UR as representing “social housing,” something she believes is essential to the well-being of a well-ordered and responsible society. UR, as noted thoroughly in our blog, is semi-public, which means their obligations as a public housing provider are limited, and Hayakawa is careful about this point. She shows how UR still uses a lot of tax money in its operations, and interviews an outspoken professor who describes how UR is a money sink, more than ¥1 trillion in the red. The government has been trying to find ways of setting the company free. One of the main reasons they can’t, as evidenced by this documentary, is that people who rent UR apartments, especially those who have lived there a long time, don’t want the company to be made 100 percent private. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that UR does not follow the extortionary practices private landlords are known for, such as charging extra fees–gift money and contract renewal fees–that have no purpose. Hayakawa doesn’t address these reasons or the lack of laws that would protect tenants, but she does an excellent job of interviewing all sides of the story and giving equal weight to each. However, viewers not familiar with Japan’s housing situation may mistakenly equate social housing with low-income housing, which it is not. It’s a difference Hayakawa neglects to clarify, and because she doesn’t specify how much rent these people pay some will think they are poor, when actually they are quite middle class. In fact, given their economic status and the superannuated state of their abodes (most public apartments built in the 1970s for families are less than 60 square meters), many viewers may wonder why these holdouts aren’t jumping at the chance to move to newer, cleaner apartments that will cost proportionately about the same. She also doesn’t clarify that only ten of the 250 households asked to leave refused to do so by June of 2010, when the topic was covered by TBS. By April of the next year, the number was down to 7. Read More