On April 19, the Lower House of the Diet unanimously passed a revision to the Safety Net Law. The revision creates a new system that will register vacant properties with local governments and, ideally, these properties will be renovated and then rented out to low-income individuals and families who are otherwise unable to access public housing, which is currently at a premium in Japan, especially in large cities.

The revision will target seniors living on their own or with other seniors, low-income families, disabled persons and, in the event of disasters, displaced households. By rights, all these groups are eligible for public housing, which is aging even more rapidly than the general population and, like the general population, is not being replaced fast enough. The demand for low-income housing increases daily, and rather than build new structures the central government and local governments believe they can tap private properties that are not being used.

In addition to expanding the stock of public housing, the revised law will solve at least part of the problem related to the number of vacant residences — both condominiums and houses — which stands at more than 8.2 million and grows larger every year.

Local governments will work with non-profit organizations to identify and solicit families and individuals who qualify for the housing, and will also provide financial assistance to those who may need it. This means some of the rental costs — up to ¥40,000 a month — will be subsidized by the central government and local governments. The authorities will also provide up to ¥2 million for the purpose of renovation, including bringing these properties up to code with regards to earthquake-proofing regulations.

According to an April 19 article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the revision was mainly implemented to meet the needs of elderly people who can no longer find or afford rental housing on the open market. One of the provisions of the new law is that owners of the properties registered will not be allowed to reject any tenants approved by local governments. According to a 2014 survey by the Japan Rental Housing Management Association, 68 percent of Japanese landlords do not rent to disabled people, 61 percent do not rent to foreign nationals and 60 percent do not rent to seniors. Sixty percent also do not rent to people who receive public assistance, and since seniors and disabled persons who will be seeking housing under the new Safety Net guidelines would likely be on welfare, they’d have a doubly difficult time finding apartments under normal circumstances.

Given how quickly Japanese society is aging, these measures need to be implemented immediately if they are going to be effective at all for the sake of seniors, and there are already a number of NPOs that help poorer elderly people obtain housing.

Landlords don’t want older tenants for various reasons. Older tenants don’t necessarily have guarantors who can vouch for their rent when they are delinquent. The most crucial matter, however, is failing health and the greater possibility that the tenant could die in the apartment. Such an incident would necessitate unexpected expenditures on the part of the property owner to dispose of the body and the tenant’s possessions, and make it more difficult to rent the unit again, since landlords and realtors are required by law to tell potential tenants if a previous resident died in the unit.

Furusato no Kai (Hometown Association), one NPO interviewed by the Mainichi, not only helps seniors find housing, but also supports their living situation to the satisfaction of potential landlords. They act as the tenant’s guarantor and keep in constant touch with the seniors they help in order to monitor their health situation and take care of possible emergencies. Basically, Furusato rents the property from the owner and then sublets it to the senior tenant. Landlords still have to pay for renovations and upkeep, just as they would normally, but they don’t have to deal directly with the tenant and, more significantly, they don’t have to look for a new tenant if the current one dies or leaves. That is done by Furusato.

Mariko Sonoda, who teaches housing policy at Meiji University, told the Mainichi that NPOs should seek out vacant-property owners and help them convert their properties into suitable housing for seniors. Mainichi found one NPO that helped a landlord remodel a vacant single-family home into a four-unit apartment building that is now filled with seniors.

NPOs such as Furusato can receive up to ¥10 million over three years from the land ministry in order to defray personnel costs and other overhead expenses associated with the new law. It is such groups — nine have been identified so far nationwide — that the central government will task with carrying out the particulars of the revision to the Safety Net Law. However, local government welfare departments will actually administer the new housing policy in line with NPO activities.

Right now, according to the Mainichi, the main problem will be coordinating between the land ministry, which administers housing policy, and the welfare ministry, which is in charge of care giving and public assistance. So far no comprehensive policy has been discussed.

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

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