Home Truths, Aug. 2012

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.

Community first

The inability to sell or rent out vacant houses and condominiums is not just a concern for the owners. In many places it’s something that the community as a whole worries about, especially now with all the talk about the erosion of “kizuna” (bonds) and the attendant loss of community-mindedness, which may have been over-stated in Japan, but in any case the atomization of urban life is definitely on the increase. A neighborhood in Chiba Prefecture is actually doing something about the problem in an unusually proactive way.

In a section of Chiba City’s Mihama Ward near Kaihin Makuhari Station, residents have put together a non-profit organization called Chiba Regional Renovation Research, whose job is to rent out vacant properties at less than their market value as a means of “reinforcing communication.” The idea is not simply to find tenants, but to make the neighborhood more viable as a community. A recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun explained that collective housing in the area in question was developed by the prefectural and municipal governments in the 1960s, and now the apartments are superannuated and mostly occupied by elderly people. After last year’s earthquake, even more people moved out of the area over fears of liquefaction, which affected many coastal areas Chiba along Tokyo Bay. The NPO is made up of 107 condominium associations in the area. Their research found that out of 800 units, about 300 were empty. (The vacancy rate for all of Chiba Prefecture is about 15 percent) In most cases, the owners of the units didn’t live there and/or were unable to rent them out, but in some cases, the owners of the units could not be identified or located. Of those empty units whose owners were interviewed–245 in all–30 percent said they wanted to rent or sell but couldn’t, and in the meantime they have to pay monthly management fees and repair fund contributions, not to mention property taxes. Since many are retired, this is a big burden for them.

The condo associations formed the NPO because their membership is so diluted it has become difficult to formulate disaster and anti-crime countermeasures. The purpose of the organization is to act as a bridge between owners and potential tenants. For instance, by offering units for less than market prices they hope to attract students. They also think that some units could be used by younger families as collective daycare centers or leisure facilities for seniors. At the same time, they will promote renovations in terms of both safety and comfort, working with prefectural authorities and the construction ministry.