Hyogo quake-housing tenants starve to victory

by Eric Johnston

Staff writerKOBE — A four-day hunger strike against Hyogo Prefecture’s public housing policy helped survivors of the 1995 Kobe earthquake still living in temporary housing score a major victory recently when prefectural officials agreed to the protesters’ major demands.”Finally, officials realized they could not ignore those who are still in temporary housing,” said Sojiro Kawamura, leader of a local activist group and one of the hunger strikers, following the prefecture’s announcement last week.Under the agreement, Hyogo Prefecture will individually consider the cases of those still in temporary housing who wish to move into prefecture-operated public housing units here that are expected to become vacant within the next 18 months. Currently, all public housing units within the city are full.Those waiting for such housing to become available will also be provided with financial assistance to move into privately owned apartments if they are judged to be in need.This could amount to about 60,000 yen per household for moving expenses, and rent of 70,000 yen per month for up to two years, prefecture officials said.Previously, only quake survivors who had already moved into public housing were eligible for financial aid, and the prefecture had refused to consider individual requests, saying the sheer number of victims and the limited supply of public housing made responding to such requests impossible.Last week’s hunger strike was the result of a series of events that began in May, when the prefecture decided to provide financial assistance to quake survivors moving out of temporary housing units and into public housing. This was done partially in an effort to get the temporary dwellings vacated. Gov. Toshitami Kaihara had originally hoped to close the units by the end of last month.For the past three years, local officials and quake survivors have been at odds over the issue. To select those eligible for public housing, the prefecture instituted what Kawamura described as an “unfair and heavy-handed” lottery system, with the winners having no say in where they would be living.As a result, many temporary housing residents refused to enter the lottery, afraid that friendships and communities formed in the temporary housing units would be broken up.For those who entered the lottery, it has been a slow process, because many public housing units have not yet been built. When the fifth lottery for prefectural housing was held in July, only 2,594 out of 4,687 participating households won.There are still an estimated 7,500 households living in temporary dwellings. Kobe city and Hyogo prefectural officials estimate that about 20,000 people, both in and out of Hyogo, still live in temporary housing.No headway was made during a series of meetings held over the summer between officials and civic groups to discuss the problem, and the prefecture announced in mid-September that financial assistance to those still residing in temporary housing would be discussed only after payments to households that had already moved out were completed in November.At that point, Kawamura said he decided to increase pressure on the prefecture and Kaihara, who faces re-election on Oct. 25, by staging the hunger strike. About 30 people participated, setting up tents and tables in front of the prefectural headquarters in downtown Kobe.The prefecture was taken by surprise. Early in the morning of Oct. 5, two days after the strike began, about 40 officials massed in front of the building. Several shouted at the protesters to leave. Kawamura said at one point an official attempted to push aside a protester, a charge the prefecture denies. No arrests were made and no injuries occurred.Two days later, Kawamura and other protesters received promises of assistance and agreed to call off the hunger strike.Kawamura said he is happy with the decision, but still wants the prefecture to consult with those living in the temporary housing units.”Prefectural officials originally said they could not honor the request for communities formed in temporary housing to be moved together into public housing. Many public housing units are located far away from schools, hospitals and workplaces. Those in temporary housing, especially the elderly, rely on their neighbors,” Kawamura said.”We need a public housing policy that involves the public, not just the bureaucrats,” he said.