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