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Getting too cozy to the next-door neighbors

by and

In its Dec. 20 issue, Asahi Shimbun reported on a couple in their 60s living in Saitama City. Two years ago their neighbor installed an Eco Cute system that uses heat pump technology to heat water more efficiently and, thus, reduce electricity costs. But since the system was installed, the older couple’s health has been deteriorating, mainly due to loss of sleep. Eco Cute operates only at night, when electricity costs are low, and the couple claims that their neighbor’s unit emits a low frequency hum, which keeps them awake. They sued the neighbor and the manufacturer of the Eco Cute unit.

In preparing the case, the couple’s lawyer discovered nine similar suits. Moreover, the Consumer Affairs Agency received 40 such complaints in 2013, 50 in 2014 and 90 in 2015. More than 5 million houses have installed Eco Cute technology since it first went on sale in 2001, and until 2010 homeowners could receive a government subsidy since it conserves energy. Though the technology is good for homeowners and the environment, the noise problem seems real, but it has less to do with the technology than with Japan’s housing situation. The plaintiff’s bedroom is 130 centimeters from their property’s border, and the Eco Cute unit is 65 centimeters from the border on the other side, meaning the problem device is only two meters away from where they sleep.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Japanese residential land size remains small in relation to the rest of the industrialized world, while houses get bigger. That means residential developments are even more cramped. Land prices are much less than what they were during the high-asset “bubble period” of the late 1980s and yet government statistics indicate that average land size for new housing lots continues to shrink.

According to a new book, “Oiru Ie, Kuzuru Machi” (“Aging Houses, Collapsing Towns”) by Chie Nozawa, the pressure to keep new housing lots small is exerted by the housing industry, in particular manufacturers who sell new homes. Nozawa says that only 10 percent of residential land in Japan that has buildings that have become uninhabited is reused for new housing. Overwhelmingly, all new housing is built on recently developed land, which, given the fact that Japan’s population is shrinking, is a waste of resources.

Housing companies are only interested in new subdivisions, and in order to attract young people whose means are not as great as their parents’, they have to provide affordable land and buildings, which is why plots are getting smaller. Young people want big houses, so they’re willing to pay less for land, and housing companies are happy to oblige because they don’t make money reselling land. They make money building homes.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, between 2003 and 2008, the average size of new residential plots nationwide shrunk by 6 square meters. When a developer or housing manufacturer buys a parcel of land, usually from a single owner or group of owners, it wants to make as much money from that parcel as possible. That means carving up the land into tiny lots, each of which can contain a house.

The main problem is finding these parcels of land, and in most cases new housing developments are popping up in areas that were originally zoned for agriculture. In order to rezone the land for housing, regulations have to be changed, and increasingly local governments have obliged, since they think housing companies bring in work, money and new residents. According to Nozawa, however, most of the people who buy the houses built on these rezoned plots tend to be from the same town or city. All they are doing is moving within the region.

This sort of scheme leads to over-production of new housing. As long as the emphasis is on new land and new homes, older land and older homes are neglected.

Nozawa uses Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture to illustrate what she calls this “slash-and-burn” approach to subdivisions. Between 2000 and 2005 the number of people living in areas zoned for agriculture in Kawagoe declined, but starting in 2005 the number of residents in these areas increased, because housing companies took advantage of new regulations that allowed them to buy land previously off-limits for housing. Over the next six years 155 hectares of farmland was rezoned for housing developments.

Nozawa says that the local government has no city planning in place for these new developments, which are scattered throughout farming districts in a haphazard manner. In order to make a subdivision, all a developer has to do is provide roads that are at least 4 meters wide and water drainage. The city does not build infrastructure in these districts, meaning no sewage, water mains or gas lines, so homeowners have to sink septic tanks and dig wells. And since there is no gas, many either subscribe to LP (propane) gas services or go all-electric, which is why systems like Eco Cute have become so popular.

The situation has placed unexpected pressure on the local government, since the population of Kawagoe is shifting from the developed “urban” part of the city to the countryside where not only is there no infrastructure, but also no schools or commercial outlets. Most of the young families who are buying the ready-made houses and tiny lots have cars. They don’t worry about public transportation. But now local governments have to spend more money to build schools. Also, because there is no sewage system, ground water is becoming polluted. Septic tanks are fine but they must be rigorously maintained, and the local government is not regulating them properly.

This isolated, uncoordinated growth is not limited to the suburbs. In Tokyo it is happening on the waterfront, where huge condominium developers are taking advantage of eased capacity regulations to build dozens of new “tower mansions.” The Tokyo metropolitan government must provide city services for these new “communities,” which are mostly drawing residents from other parts of the city. In other words, local governments have to provide more services for the same tax base, which is now spread out over a larger area. Population densities in regional city centers are going down, adversely affecting commercial endeavors as well. A survey conducted by Mizuho Bank found that between 1997 and 2013, the number of supermarkets declined in regional capitals by between 57 and 73 percent. Toyo Keizai magazine reports that only 18 of JR East’s 70 train lines are running in the black because populations of certain areas are becoming too diffuse to sustain them.

Unchecked, unplanned suburban development that benefits housing makers is dispersing an already dwindling population over a wider area. And as we’re seeing now with the huge akiya (abandoned house) problem, this new housing is not going to be a financial asset to their owners because their value in a shrinking market drops as soon as they move in. Local governments think that by easing zoning regulations to make it easier for developers to sell new houses they are stimulating the local economy, but they’re not. They are just creating more junk real estate.

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