What to do with Tokyo’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned homes

At the forefront of socioeconomic issues facing Japan is its aging and declining population, and perhaps no where will this manifest itself more visibly than in the country’s real estate and infrastructure. Local governments throughout Japan, including Tokyo, are having to come up with innovative solutions for millions of abandoned homes around the country.

Japan’s population is expected to contract by nearly a third within the next 50 years, according to the government’s latest figures, with the number of people dropping from just over 127 million in 2015 to 88 million in 2065 and further shrinking to 51 million by 2115.

As people age and become less self-sufficient, many will move in with family members or go to assisted-living facilities, and eventually pass away. Some will leave behind homes without occupants or caretakers. Even in cases where children inherit these properties, they are often located in places where adult children, working city-center jobs, do not want to live.

According to a survey conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in 2013 there were 820,000 abandoned houses in the city of Tokyo, which includes the 23 wards and western suburbs.

This astounding number is expected to increase dramatically in about 25 years when the baby boomer generation will enter the latter stage of their lives. The Ministry estimates that there are currently about 8 million abandoned homes throughout the country.

Abandoned homes scattered throughout cities and neighborhoods will lead to a deterioration in the living environment, as well as acting as a drag on the re-sale house market, so local governments understand that it is an urgent issue for maintaining quality of life and supporting the economy.

Requiring owners to register ownership

Currently, property owners are not required to register ownership of real estate (under the 登記法, toukihou). This is a problem because it means that they can walk away from an unwanted property and not be liable for fixed-asset taxes. The government is working to change the law to require that all owners register.

Cost of Tearing Down

One solution to the growing glut of abandoned homes, would be to require owners to tear them down, but the cost of dismantling a house can be prohibitive. Also, even though there is some government financial assistance available for private owners to tear down a house, there are simply not enough funds to cover the already hundreds of thousands of vacant houses in Tokyo, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more expected in the next few decades.

The cost of tearing down a home depends on the size, age, material, location, and other factors, but it can cost anywhere from several thousand dollars to well over ten thousand dollars or more, according to Kaitai Support, a company that specializes in dismantling vacant homes.

What local governments are doing

Given the financial constraints of paying to dismantle thousands of abandoned homes, local Tokyo governments have come up with alternative policies, many involving partnerships with the private sector and NGOs. These policies will come into effect in April, the start of the fiscal year in Japan. Below are some examples of how local governments in Tokyo are tackling the issue.

Setagaya Ward has said that it will provide financial assistance to owners of abandoned homes to fix or renovate their properties with the aim of renting them out to tenants who would otherwise have difficulty finding a home. The ward will provide funds of up to ¥1,000,000 per room to owners who convert single-family homes into an apartment-like housing complex.

Setagaya Ward will also provide subsidies of as much as ¥40,000 ($374) a month to owners who let out their properties to single-parent families. This, of course, will also indirectly subsidize rent for tenants. A spokesperson for the ward says that they are not aware of any other municipality in Japan implementing such a policy.

Edogawa Ward‘s strategy is to provide assistance to property owners to seismically retrofit properties that will then be rented out. Currently, the ward only provides financial assistance for seismic retrofitting to property owners who are actually occupying the home. However, this requirement will be waived if owners convert their properties into rental housing. Owners of wooden structures can receive as much as ¥1,500,000 in assistance for seismically retrofitting their property.

Ota Ward will do a model renovation of an abandoned house near Yaguchinowatashi Station and turn the building into a “business research facility” to study the issue of what to do with vacant houses in the ward. The building will also be used for activities by senior citizens and families with children, and the ward will work in collaboration with Kyoritsu Women’s University to study other ways to utilize abandoned houses. The municipal government also plans to do a survey of the 5,000 or so abandoned homes in the ward.

You may also be interested in: Yokosuka City, first to tear down a vacant house under new law

Source: Nikkei Shinbun (February 14, 2018)