Time’s up

Kobe 1997

Kobe 1997

While victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami continue to struggle with housing issues almost two years into their ordeal, a group of refugees from an earlier natural disaster has been given notice that they will soon be on their own. Ever since the 18th anniversary on Jan. 17 of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, various media have reported on the notifications distributed by local governments to residents of 6,600 rental units saying that they have two years to vacate their apartments. These people were living in public housing for low-income residents when the earthquake struck in 1995, and most of their dwellings were destroyed, so the governments of Hyogo Prefecture and six cities made contracts with private landlords. The residents paid as much rent as they could in accordance with their incomes and the local governments made up the rest. The deal was limited to 20 years, which means that between 2015 and 2017, depending on when they moved in, the tenants will have to move out of their current apartments, either to public housing or somewhere else. Most of these people are elderly, and the public housing (shiei jutaku) that has been built in the meantime tends to be located far from where they presently live. They are reluctant to move at their age, having formed bonds with their neighborhoods and their neighbors, which are extremely important in terms of mental and physical well-being.

The authorities say they have given the tenants ample notice. According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, announcements were first distributed in 2010, and the contracts the residents signed when they first moved is stipulated the 20-year limit, though supporters of the tenants point out that this term is vaguely stated and buried in small print. Most of the apartment buildings were hastily constructed by developers right after the earthquake in anticipation of just such a need for low-income housing. With local governments guaranteeing the rents of tenants, it was a virtual goldmine for landlords, which include semi-public housing juggernaut UR, and one can easily imagine that the landlords are fully supportive of the residents who are protesting the pending evictions since they themselves will lose revenue as a result–the rental housing market is not in good shape. The mayor of Nishinomiya recently received a petition with 3,251 signatures.

The local governments have said there’s nothing they can do about the situation since the 20-year limit is built into the civil code and Public Housing Law, even though the law itself was revised right after the earthquake to allow commercial properties to be used for public housing (kariage fukko jutaku). Some media, including the Japan Communist Party organ Akahata, mention that the controversy has ramifications for the current situation in Tohoku. As in Hyogo, private developers have been invited to build rental housing for people who lost homes to the tsunami or nuclear disaster, and apparently the authorities learned their lessons in Kobe because they are explaining to tenants that there is a 20-year limit. Of course, in Tohoku there are considerations that people in Kobe didn’t have to worry about, so at the moment a 20-year lease may be the least of their problems.

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

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

The awful truth

We often go out in the field to do research, but it’s always a two-pronged activity. On the one hand we study the housing situation and the market in an up close and personal manner. On the other hand, we’re still thinking about buying property ourselves someday, and though after more than fifteen years of searching off-and-on we haven’t bought anything, it doesn’t mean we never will. Still, the longer this goes on and the more we learn, the more frustrated we become, especially as our income situation remains precarious owing to the ongoing recession. Having a permanent abode that we can’t be kicked out of, regardless of our job circumstances, is a vital consideration, but looking at what we can afford we invariably fall into a funk wondering why we have to settle for such places. Inevitably, you prevaricate: This may be livable.

Our latest subject is old danchi/kodan for sale, which have become semi-popular due to media coverage of “danchi moe,” or fans of old public housing. We’ve written before about enterprising people who’ve bought old apartments in buildings constructed during the 50s-70s and remodeled them as attractive modern spaces, which they often sell for a profit. Because they only cost a few million yen to buy and a few million yen to fix up, they can be had quite cheap in the end, but most of the units that have been covered on TV and in magazines are small; fine for a single person but still a bit cramped for a couple and certainly not big enough for a family, though in all likelihood they were occupied by a family when they were new.

When you get out of the main cities, these danchi and kodan get bigger and even cheaper. And in most cases they’re also newer, which means more amenities. However, they still look like danchi, meaning they’re usually contained in dull concrete buildings of three to five stories without elevators. The fact that they are designed with these parameters in mind means that the apartment layouts tend to be more sensible than those in newer buildings. The classic kodan design has a staircase and apartment entrances on each side of the landings, which means you usually enter at ninety degrees to the length of the apartment. That allows for windows on both ends of the apartment, which means there is not only more sunlight, but cross-ventilation, an important consideration until the 1980s, when air conditioning started to become a fixture of apartment life. It also means the rooms are more practically positioned, unlike modern apartments where the entrances open up to a common outside hallway or light well, which means all the light and air comes from only one direction. In order to maximize space for commercial purposes, the rooms are basically carved out of a boxy shape, thus creating what is often referred to as “kamaboko” living spaces. Kamaboko are those rectangular fish paste loaves that you divide into smaller rectangular pieces.

So discounting the unappetizing exteriors, older danchi, especially when they’ve been fixed up, can be quite desirable, and in this spirit we called a few real estate agents and had them show us some in northern Chiba. Read More

The right thing

The blur of memory: After the cleanup in Tokyo

In the last few posts we’ve ragged a bit on UR, specifically their dodgy ties to outside providers like Tokyo Gas and local cable outfits, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as disillusionment. For all its anal bureaucratic culture and general air of mismanagement, Japan’s only national semi-public housing corporation is also the only place in Japan where renters get a fair shake. We found that out when we received the refund for our security deposit a few days ago.

We moved from a UR high-rise in Tokyo to a low-rise UR complex in northern Chiba Prefecture. UR makes it relatively easy to move from one of its buildings to another one. The tenant doesn’t have to go through the screening process again (unless he/she is moving to a decidedly more expensive residence), and the security deposit (shikikin) that was paid for the former apartment is transferred to the new one, with the difference either being made up by the tenant or refunded to him/her. In our case it was the latter. Though the new apartment is the same size as the one we rented in Tokyo, it is almost ¥70,000 cheaper per month. The security deposits for UR typically amount to the equivalent of three months’ rent, which is a bit higher at the moment than security deposits for private rentals, but the important thing to remember about UR is that they don’t charge “gift money” (reikin) or contract renewal fees (koshinryo), and also don’t require guarantors or co-signers. Read More

Nouvelle Akabanedai

#7 & #6 blocks

It’s tempting to wonder what Akabanedai would have turned into had various government bodies not decided to turn it into an almost exclusive zone for danchi, meaning public housing complexes, back in the 1960s. It was the first major danchi complex within the 23 wards of Tokyo, located on a hill that steeply overlooks Akabane Station in Kita-ku, not far from the Saitama border, and it was considered cutting edge by danchi standards when it opened in 1962, on a par with Matsudo. When I lived near Ukima-Funado Station on the Saikyo Line during the latter half of the 90s, I often walked to Akabane Station, which meant climbing the hill from the north side and walking through the danchi, which was huge, a veritable mini-state with its own complement of retailers that, at the time, appeared to languish in a commerical funk. Akabane, which teemed with restaurants and funky little drinking establishments; a large and well-used Ito-Yokado; and even a fair-sized bawdy district with Philippine hostess clubs and “cabarets,” was just a few minutes away, down a steep flight of steps at the edge of the tunnel that ran below the housing complex. Though the danchi was still the home to thousands of families, the dissipated atmosphere characterized by the sad retail component gave it a cast of desperation. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone patronizing these establishments.

But had it not been developed as a danchi, Akabanedai might have attracted a richer sort of homeowner. (It was a factory district on nationally controlled land before the danchi was built) There are lots of trees and vegetation up there and a fairly extensive park system; and the view, when it isn’t blocked by another public apartment building, can be breathtaking. Read More

Nihongo needed

Last April the city of Fukui adopted a “guideline” in its municipal public housing regulations that stated non-Japanese who applied for low-income housing must be able to “communicate in Japanese.” Applications for those who cannot will not be accepted. Since then various groups that work with foreigners in Japan have protested the guideline, but it still stands. Some of these groups have said that they are aware that some non-Japanese applicants, though they qualify for public housing otherwise, have been prevented from applying for housing due to the new guideline.

There are nine cities in Fukui Prefecture, but only Fukui City has such a rule. The city official in charge of public housing told a local newspaper that his office had received complaints from community associations (jichikai) of individual public housing complexes. These associations said that some non-Japanese residents were unable to communicate “very well” in Japanese, and thus it was difficult for them to understand and follow association rules regarding the “sorting of refuse” and “noise.” For that reason, the city government adopted this new guideline. Read More

Public housing on the ropes

Housing complex along Sumida River run by Tokyo-to

There are two types of public housing available in Japan. A national public corporation called UR runs semi-public housing whose rents are pegged to property values. Meanwhile local governments at the prefectural and municipal levels provide housing for low-income families and individuals. Last week, the Asahi Shimbun surveyed this latter category among Japan’s 47 prefectures and 19 major cities. The newspaper found that 1/3 of these entities planned to reduce the number of units of low-income housing in the future.

In fact, the only two local governments who said they planned to increase low-income public housing was the prefecture of Okinawa and the city of Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture. Everyone else said they either would keep the number they already have, or had not made any plans at all.

The governments who said they would decrease public housing stated as their main reason the declining population. The second most common reason was difficulty in securing funds for maintenance of existing housing. Two prefectures said they were planning on rebuilding their housing facilities, since the bulk of low-income public apartments were built in the 60s and 70s. When they carry out the reconstruction work, they will probably reduce the number of units per building. Another reason that wasn’t mentioned as often but certainly had a significant impact is the fact that subsidies for public housing from the central government have dropped by 40 percent in the past ten years. Read More

Romancing the sponge

The atomization of society has inevitably led to more and more elderly people living alone and, consequently, dying alone, too. In 2006 in Tokyo, 357 old people died in public housing units without anyone knowing until days or even weeks after they passed. One of the biggest “danchi” (apartment house complexes) in Tokyo is the Toyama Danchi, located about 10 minutes from Takadanobaba station in the center of the city. This particular complex is for low-income people, which means a fair number of older people live there. At present, almost 52% of the residents are over 65. This is not accidental, however. It has been very carefully planned. Read More

Lowered ceilings

Some basic stats as of 2003: There were 47 million housing units in Japan, of which 28 million (61%) were owned and 17 million (37%) were rented. Twelve percent of the rental units, or about 2.89 million, were public housing. The amount of rent charged in these public housing units is determined by income. As mentioned below several times, the recession has forced local governments to reassess the criteria for public housing applications in order to make it “fairer.” According to an Asahi Shimbun survey, 40% of local governments are planning to lower the maximum income ceiling for being accepted into public housing from ¥200,000 a month to ¥158,000 a month.

Read More