Shift that burden

Professor Yosuke Hirayama of Kobe University, probably Japan’s foremost scholar on the subject of housing and social policy, was the subject of a fairly long interview in the Asahi Shimbun recently, and though everything he said has been discussed at length in this blog, his explanation of what’s wrong with Japan’s official housing policy deserves to be summarized, especially in light of the current worldwide movement to close the income gap. For sure, Hirayama’s belief that government must shift its policy away from home ownership may raise the hackles of free market advocates and libertarians since it basically takes for granted the idea that housing is such a basic need for all members of society that the authorities need to be involved. What’s notable is that his ideas are based on classic, some might say prosaic economic principles; but in any case it was government that created the problem in the first place.

In a nutshell, Hirayama says that Japan’s long-time housing policy, which is based on promoting home ownership, has hit a wall, and that the government should shift this policy to promoting rentals. He begins by citing the disaster in the Tohoku region, where home ownership is even higher than the national average and where a good portion of these homeowners are elderly people who live alone. They are already in debt, and to encourage them to build new houses is simply to push them further into debt. Instead, the government should promote the construction of more rental housing and offer subsidies to renters. He mentions that he himself lived through the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, and at the time was renting. Compared to homeowners, he survived the situation without as much emotional or financial trouble, because all he had to do was move. Of course, earthquakes are unpredictable, and by themselves can not be used to argue against home ownership (though he also points out that seismologists predict a better than even chance of a major earthquake hitting a large populated area in Kanto or Tokai in the next 30 years). The point is that renting has its advantages, a notion that has no traction in Japan. Read More