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Little houses crammed in a big city

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

The neighborhood of Minami Senju in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward is serviced by three train lines that provide easy, quick access to all parts of the city and beyond. East of these lines is an area called Shioiri, highlighted by a relatively new urban development complex centered around high-rise condominiums and rental apartments. To the west is a cramped maze of narrow, winding alleys lined with small wooden structures. Though surrounding areas are undergoing change in the usual makeshift Tokyo fashion, this patch of shitamachi, the “low town,” remains much the same as it has been since the end of World War II — a mish-mash of small businesses and residences oblivious to zoning or any other notion of city planning.

On a recent afternoon, we dropped in on Yoshii Ishii, who leads the Minami Senju Chuo neighborhood association. Eighty-three years old, Ishii moved here from Fukushima Prefecture in the late 1940s and started a small construction company. We mention the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s plans for rebuilding neighborhoods like his, which are at high risk in disasters. He says the residents are aware of the plan, but most of them are very old.

“All we can do is make sure we don’t start any fires,” he says. Just the night before, the association met with police and the owners of four nearby high buildings to gain permission for residents to evacuate to those buildings in the event of an emergency. When asked if any of his neighbors have actually rebuilt their homes to make them more fire- or quake-proof, or if there are any plans to widen roads in the community, he becomes circumspect.

“We can’t make them rebuild if they don’t want to. We understand the houses are dangerous, but to change — that would take 100 years,” he says. “We like it the way it is. In a way we’re feudalistic.”

Most of the people who died in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 were living in neighborhoods of densely concentrated old wooden houses. Tokyo, which has many such neighborhoods, recently estimated that if a magnitude-7 earthquake struck directly under the city, at least 390,000 wooden homes would collapse and/or burn. The majority are jammed together along paths too narrow to accommodate fire-fighting equipment. About 20 percent of the city’s population live in such neighborhoods, which can be found throughout its 23 wards. They have been designated as “special districts for fire-proofing” and, following last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the city initiated a program to make them safer. Wards that agree to join the program are eligible for subsidies and tax breaks to encourage rebuilding. The aims are to widen roads to allow access for firefighters and facilitate escape, and to replace wooden structures with steel ones. Tokyo hopes to complete at least 70 percent of this work by 2020. So far, six wards have said they may participate, including Arakawa.

Complicating these plans is the city’s “setback law,” which covers the land that lines private roads or paths of less than 4 meters in width. If the owner wants to rebuild, he has to make allowances for widening the road, which means his property will shrink. These conditions apply to most of the properties in so-called mokumitsu chīki (dense wooden house districts).

The law effectively acts as a disincentive for rebuilding, since most applicable plots are small to begin with. Homeowners can renovate or remodel their dwellings, but if they rebuild they may have to make the houses even smaller. The situation is even stricter for a house that is not along a road, but is simply boxed in by other houses. Those are designated as saikenchiku-fuka meaning structures that can’t be rebuilt at all. Consequently, these properties aren’t replaced, and the structures remain fire hazards. In November, a wooden apartment building in the Okubo district burned down, killing four residents. The structure was 50 years old and, due to its inaccessibility, it was designated as a saikenchiku-fuka. Firefighters couldn’t reach it.

The set-back/saikenchiku-fuka law may prove to be the main obstacle to Tokyo’s redevelopment plan. Property is a complex issue, especially in these densely populated neighborhoods where it isn’t always clear who owns what and where one plot ends and another starts.

Minami Senju and nearby Machiya were developed by refugees of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, who simply moved to the region when it was farmland and created ad hoc towns. The areas escaped the Tokyo air raids and so were not redeveloped after the war. The same goes for Sumida Ward’s Kyojima, 25 hectares of densely packed wooden structures on the other side of the Sumida River. The area was swampy lowland used for rice paddies, but a group of carpenters leased the land from the owners and built makeshift nagaya (townhouses) to rent out to families following the 1923 quake.

When even more refugees crowded in after the war, population density reached 800 people per hectare, making it one of the most crowded residential areas in the world. In 1971, the Tokyo housing authority planned to tear everything down and move residents into apartment buildings, a plan that was quickly replaced by a more gradual redevelopment project. In addition to the problem of securing sufficient funding, the ward couldn’t untangle the rental relationships, which go back generations.

Though landowners could be persuaded to sell their property for redevelopment, the companies that owned the dwellings and collected rents didn’t want to negotiate removal of tenants since the law made it difficult and expensive to evict. Eventually, Sumida Ward gave up. In the past decade, the area has become a magnet for creative types, revitalizing the neighborhood but not making it any safer.

Until the early ’90s Shioiri in Arakawa Ward was a confusing warren of wooden shacks. Redevelopment was relatively painless because most of the land was owned by one family and the people who lived there were easily compensated by the city, which devised a grand plan back in 1969.

Like parts of Kyojima, Shioiri before 1990 could be described as a slum, but other such neighborhoods are valued by both residents and outsiders for their homey ambience. To some they are the only remnants of old Tokyo, which was nevertheless famous for its tendency to change overnight. Redevelopment in these neighborhoods is resisted because any change might destroy their unique character. In that regard, Taishido, in Setagaya Ward, offers an example of an area where streets were widened and structures reinforced without losing its attractive qualities, but Taishido seems more of an exception than a model.

Since the concept of eminent domain (state seizure of private property) is weak in Japan, authorities try to compel change with tools such as the setback law, but property owners will always look to their own advantage and local governments won’t reimburse them for the land they lose to roads when they rebuild. If they sell their houses, the real estate agents who handle the transactions help buyers remodel the home without rebuilding, thus perpetuating the fire hazard. In many situations, if an adjacent property is also for sale then a developer will step in and combine the lots to build a small apartment building while adhering to the law and making room for wider roads.

According to Ishii, the residents of Minami Senju 7-chome “are like family” and don’t appreciate it when “outsiders” — meaning renters — move in. If a developer builds an apartment, “it wrecks the community” is a common complaint, and not just in mokumitsu chīki. In a fairly well-to-do area of Setagaya Ward, not far from Jiyugaoka, homeowners continue to protest a loophole that allowed a developer to build rental nagaya in their midst.

The local zoning laws forbid construction of apartment buildings in the area, but an apartment building is defined by the government as a collective residence with one common street entrance. This nagaya is still basically a collective residence, but each unit has its own street entrance. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the developer bought the land and estimated he could make more money with 14 rental units than he could building and selling single-family homes.

It’s obvious that community involvement is essential when devising plans to alleviate the effects of disasters, and the current Tokyo scheme tries to encourage input by accepting proposals from wards and neighborhoods. But given the rigidity of the bureaucratic mindset and the reactionary self-interest of property owners — not to mention the prevailing fatalism indicated by Ishii’s comments — there probably won’t be any change until the next disaster strikes or the current generation of residents dies off, whichever comes first.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.