This land is UR land

Tract of UR-owned land near Inzai Makinohara station on the Hokuso Line

The Asahi Shimbun recently reported that the government finished auditing its accounts for fiscal 2011. The board that conducted the investigation found 513 separate cases of “waste” comprising ¥529.16 billion, the largest amount since records have been compiled. In the wake of media reports that have government organs inappropriately using tax money earmarked for reconstruction of the disaster-hit Tohoku region, it is natural to assume that this waste would be doubly scrutinized, but we won’t hold our breath. One of the areas that will probably invite less concern is assets held by dokuritsu gyosei hojin–independent administrative agencies–that remain unused. In 2010, the cabinet issued a directive that such assets should be returned to the government, but apparently that’s not happening as the auditors found lots of unused assets lying around–literally, in many cases, since the assets that seem to be the most problematic are real estate-related. The National Hospital Organization, for instance, owns 217,000 square meters of land valued at ¥6.7 billion that remains undeveloped and with no plans for development. According to the cabinet directive this land should be handed over to the national government.

Another independent administrative agency with lots of unused assets is Toshi Saisei Kiko, more popularly known as UR (Urban Renaissance), the semi-public housing corporation that the government would like to make completely private because it’s such a sinkhole for money. Since UR’s business is the sale, development, and management of real estate, its unused asset problem is also a business problem, and the auditors found that the company controlled 223 hectares of land valued at ¥89.7 billion that was unused, which many not sound like much, but apparently the audit board was only talking about assets that were supposed to be “processed” during FY2011. As almost everyone knows, UR has lots and lots of land that remains undeveloped, and since all of UR’s debts are covered by the government the auditors insist that UR can cover at least some of its deficits by liquidating land assets. Read More

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Space invaders

A few weeks ago we went to an old kodan not far from where we live to inspect an apartment that was on sale. We had never had dealings with this particular real estate company before, and we arrived early to check out the general environment, which was better than it is for most kodan. This one was built in the mid-80s and while the buildings themselves were as dull and utilitarian-looking as any other, the landscaping was impressive: lots of clean, well-maintained mini-parks separating the buildings, which were situated at angles that took advantage of the sunlight. We strolled over to the apartment building where we were to meet the agent and just so happened to run into an agent for a different company setting up a sign outside the same building for an open house. We knew this woman well, having met her numerous times when we inspected other properties in the vicinity. She was open and knowledgeable and knew exactly what we were looking for. It was always a pleasure to talk to her because she didn’t put on the usual salesperson front.

She told us that the apartment she was showing had been badly damaged in a fire. The owners had insurance, which covered the renovations. In fact, they apparently used the opportunity to gut the whole place and completely redo it. It wasn’t clear if the owners had been planning to move beforehand or made the decision after the fire (which is understandable–it might have been difficult for them to face their neighbors after almost burning down the building), but in any case the 70-square meter apartment was being sold for about ¥8 million. We told the agent we’d drop in after we inspected the other place. Read More

Semi-detached

Though we still look at condos, it’s mostly for academic purposes. We have nothing against condos aesthetically or practically, but collective living automatically brings with it certain restrictions that we don’t really want to buy into. That may sound strange coming from people who still rent, but the responsibilities inherent in owning a property are more pronounced when the property is collective. For one thing, the condominiums we tend to like in terms of layout and design are actually those that were built by the housing authority, now called UR, and most of those still don’t allow pets. (We plan to cover the pet problem in more detail in a later article.) This small but significant restriction is indicative of the condo experience: people who own are understandably more caught up in the collective enterprise and thus pay closer attention to their neighbors. Renters are relatively forgiving, maybe because they tend to think they won’t be staying here forever. Owners have more of a stake and thus there are more rules and the rules are enforced. We’re not against rules, but it seems less stressful to own a house, where you can pretty much do whatever you want, than a condo, where you may not be sure what you can do until you move in. Read More

We’re the top

What we’re talking about: Palm Springs in Inzai!

Earlier this week the Sankei-affiliated web magazine Zakzak published this year’s results of business journal Toyo Keizai’s annual survey of “urban power,” meaning the most livable cities in Japan. Toyo has been doing the survey since 1993 in conjunction with the publication of a periodical data book that compiles statistics about local economies. The survey uses “14 types of information” released by a number of government organs, including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, comprising five criteria for satisfactory urban living: safety, convenience, comfort, affluence, and housing standards. The survey covered 787 cities and the 23 wards of Tokyo, and this year the municipality that came out on top was Inzai in Chiba Prefecture, which just happens to be where we live.

Our reaction was pleasant surprise mixed with doubt, and as we read the Zakzak article it became clear what Toyo Keizai’s priorities are with regard to a satisfactory living situation. Inzai ranked #3 in the nation in the convenience category because of its retail accessibility. There are lots of discount stores that are easy to reach and with plenty of free parking. People of a certain aesthetic disposition will, of course, find this aspect of Inzai life somewhat off-putting. The retail outlets in question line route 464, which runs parallel to the Hokuso train line through three stations. Many of these outlets are gathered into rather sterile shopping malls. The article also quotes a 35-year-old resident as praising the “large choice of restaurants” along the main road, though such effusiveness should be qualified by the information that almost all these restaurants belong to national chains. For sure, if there’s one thing that characterizes Inzai’s abundance of commercial choice it’s the almost total lack of distinction. There’s nothing here that’s any different from other suburban commercial districts in Japan except maybe more of it; or less, since you’d be hard pressed to find anything that could be described as “typically Japanese.” If anything, the retail tone is strikingly American. Read More

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

Dying to get in

Who died here?

Further on the subject of the property values of places where people died, which was started in the comments section of the previous post, there was actually a book titled “Tokyo Laundering” published last year about a fictional occupation: people who are hired by landlords or realtors to live for one month in houses or apartments where people just died. By having somebody occupy the place legally, the owner can rent or sell the property at its listed value rather than the cut-rate price that most owners are compelled to advertise for such a property since, according to law, they have to tell prospective buyers/renters that a person died there. If someone lives there for a month, they’re no longer obliged to reveal that information. It’s such a clever subterfuge, we’re surprised no one has actually put it into practice.

As far as we know, the only outfit that openly advertises such properties is UR, which lists rental apartments where people have died for something like half the normal price for up to two years. Supposedly, within their system 300 units become vacant each year because someone died. We’ve also heard of realtors soliciting doctors, people in the funeral business, and foreigners for such properties since such people usually aren’t grossed out by the idea of someone having died in the place they just moved into. There’s also a website that lists properties where “incidents” occurred, and though they detail the incident that took place (with the help of inadvertently humorous illustrations) and even show you the location on a map, you’ll need to do a bit of detective work to find out about renting or buying, since all they give as contact is the name of the realtor or owner. It’s a great site, however, for those into ghoulish walking tours.

And lastly, some insurance companies offer coverage to landlords for apartment deaths. If a tenant dies in one of their properties, they can receive up to ¥1 million, which should cover the money lost as a result of an extended vacancy or decreased rent.

Home Truths #3

Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, about UR housing. The article is mainly a how-to piece and doesn’t really get into the details of what the buildings and apartments themselves are like. We’ve written about UR a lot in this blog, as well as in our sister blog Yen for Living, since we’ve been living in UR units since 2000. Below are links to some of these posts that provide more specific information.

Security deposits / Tour of Nouvelle Akabanedai / Amenities / Tour of UR Ogikubo / Matsudo public housing / Japanese needed? / Low-income housing / Tour of Heart Island Shinden / ‘kudokushi’ savings / Tour of East Core Hikifune