Vacant houses pose a problem

The number of vacant houses improperly managed is increasing as the nation grows grayer and some areas experience depopulation. Many problems plague vacant houses as they fall into disrepair, including arson and other crimes, blight and safety issues. In 1988, there were 3.95 million vacant houses across the nation. The number increased to 7.57 million in 2008, or 13 percent of the total number of houses. Of these vacant houses, 1.73 million are wooden.

Many local governments have established by-laws in an effort to try to prevent problems involving vacant houses, including by-laws that strongly urge owners to properly manage their properties. But in many cases, owners live far away from the vacant houses they own and they fail to take sufficient steps to remedy the situation. Therefore the central government must provide concrete assistance to local governments that are struggling to deal with this problem. The assistance should be given on an individual basis because the problems municipalities face vary from case to case.

If vacant houses deteriorate to the point where they pose a danger to other people, municipalities can tear them down as execution by proxy under a provision of the Building Standards Law. More than 200 local governments have enforced by-laws to deal with problems of vacant houses as of April 1 — more than 10 percent of Japan’s prefectural and municipal governments. Many of them want to prevent vacant houses from posing a danger to local residents.

A by-law of Daisen City in Akita Prefecture is aimed at preventing roof tops of vacant houses from injuring people due to heavy snow or storms. If the city finds that vacant houses are likely to pose a danger, it will tell the owners to repair them. If they do not comply, the city will carry out the repairs and demand that the owners pay the cost. A by-law of Tokorozawa City in Saitama Prefecture empowers the city government to tell owners of vacant houses to carry out necessary repairs but stops short of empowering the city to do the repairs. The Tokorozawa by-law takes into account the fact that owners of vacant houses in the city, which is near Tokyo, can find buyers rather easily. A by-law of Kyoto City is rather mild and only strongly urges owners of vacant houses to rent or sell them. This is a rather practical approach as it would increase the financial burden shouldered by local governments if they have to repair or tear down vacant houses.

Local governments can experience difficulty in trying to identify house owners by checking property tax records. If the municipality tax section discloses this information, it is considered to be a violation of the duty of confidentiality. The central government should consider revising the Local Tax Law to help local governments identify owners of vacant houses.

One of the reasons for house owners not tearing down their vacant houses is that property tax for owning a vacant house is lower than the same tax imposed on empty lots. The central government should consider equalizing the tax burden to eliminate this disincentive. The central and local governments also should consider how to best promote the leasing or sale of vacant houses.