“Semi” isn’t in it

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal

The Feb. 21 Media Mix column in the Japan Times, which we also write, is about the money scandal surrounding Liberal Democratic Party member Akira Amari that forced him to resign his cabinet position. The scandal involved a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, which wanted to shake down the Urban Renaissance Agency for a large amount of compensation, since part of the company’s “offices” had to move due to a road construction project that UR was carrying out with the Chiba Prefecture authorities. Takeshi Isshiki, ostensibly an official with the construction company, told various media how he had paid money to Amari and his secretaries so that they would use their influence to get as much money as possible out of UR. One of the themes of the column is that UR, which is called a “semi-private” or “semi-public” organization, depending on which angle you look at if from, is an entrenched bureacratic entity beholden to the government for its very existence. It started out as the Japan Housing Corporation, a clearly entrenched bureaucratic entity, which built lots of housing developments in the years after World War II with government money. Since the end of the bubble era, it hasn’t done much of that and has sunken deeper into debt. Without much purpose in life except collecting rent on UR apartments, UR is seen as a pointless enterprise now and several administrations have tried to privatize it, but UR has resisted because being in the government guarantees incomes. Thrown on the mercy of the market, most of its employees would lose their jobs, or make less money.

The information we used to make these points in the column was taken from an article in Gendai Business written by Yoichi Takahashi, a former finance ministry economist who knows a thing or two about how bureaucracies work and bureaucrats think. His point is that the scandal would never have happened if UR weren’t involved. Had the road construction project been carried out by a genuine private concern, or even by the Chiba Prefecture government by itself, it would have been more difficult for the construction company to extort money, and, in any case, Amari wouldn’t have had as much pull in any related negotiations. But because UR occupies a shaky position vis-a-vis the government, it easily bends to pressure from that government, especially a cabinet member. Read More

Get on it

Small item in the Tokyo Shimbun reported that on Sept. 8 the land ministry announced a policy to “step forward” in developing a system to provide potential homeowners with information about earthquake-proofing and renovation histories of used properties put on the market. As it stands, real estate agents who list homes for sale include information about price, layout, size, age, and location, but usually not much else unless you ask, and even then they are sometimes reluctant about things like quake-proofing since they don’t want to be responsible for such information. As far as renovations go, if the work was done recently in order to improve the value of a property, then, of course, the realtor will mention it, but if the work was done in the past there’s not much reason to if the cosmetic benefits are negligible.

The purpose of the land ministry policy is to expand the housing market to include more used homes. In 2008, only 13.5 percent of all homes sold in Japan were used, while the portion (in 2009) of same in the U.S. was 90.3 percent and in the UK 85.8 percent. The ministry thinks that if consumers had “more confidence” in used properties they would buy more. Typically, the ministry doesn’t have any concrete measures in mind to accomplish this confidence-building, but in the next budget they plan to ask for ¥50 million for “study,” meaning, presumably, looking into ways to help realtors include this information in their listings. Would they actually pass a law making it mandatory for realtors to tell potential buyers if a property was quake-proofed? That would be quite an undertaking since a lot of homeowners don’t even know the extent of the quake-proofing on their structures, or if there is any at all. All homes and condos constructed after 1980 are supposed to have been built to quake-proof standards, but given lead times on construction the standard probably didn’t become a full standard until the mid-80s. In any case, no one has done a proper study to find out how strictly the standards were carried out. One problem the ministry will have to consider when it spends its measly 50 million is what potential buyers can do to find out about quake-proofing. If a realtor doesn’t have that information and a buyer wants to know, who is going to pay for the inspection? For a single-family home a quake-proofing inspection can cost hundreds of thousands of yen; for a condominium building, a cool million. It’s easy to see why realtors, and the sellers they represent, want to avoid the subject, but the ministry doesn’t have that luxury. They say they want to stimulate the used housing market, but if there’s no reliable and reasonably priced system of assessing something as basic as quake-proofing then maybe the market isn’t even worth it.

Cheap fix

Here is a housing-related article we wrote for our sister blog at the Japan Times about a recent government study about reserve funds for condo repairs. It relates to a lot of the themes we have covered in this blog.