National | Regional Voices: Tohoku

Rent hikes for surviving 3/11 residents cause mass exodus of young families in Sendai

Kahoku Shimpo

Eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, some survivors of the disaster still live in uncertainty as they fall between the cracks of governmental policy that is meant to support them.

Now, 176 families who live in public apartment complexes within Sendai will have to look for new homes because their rents rose this year. They currently occupy public housing complexes under a special arrangement that lets them reside there for cheaper rent.

Starting this year, those families will see that exemption end, because their salary will exceed the cap usually applied to such government-run housing complexes.

Some households will see their monthly rent increase by ¥100,000, and some other rents will quadruple, from a monthly rate of ¥35,000 to ¥143,400.

The rent hikes are pushing more residents, especially families with children, to move out, leaving the remaining residents worried about the increasing ratio of senior residents and how the mass exodus of young families may affect the future of the local community.

According to the leader of a neighborhood community association of a government-run public apartment block within Sendai, five families who exceeded the income cap already moved out in May.

Some of them had seen their rents hiked to ¥110,000 a month, and they had found that they had no choice but to leave, saying that they can’t pay the rent when they “don’t even have savings.”

In a separate city-run housing complex in Sendai’s Taihaku Ward, residents are becoming more concerned about how the average age of residents is rising.

Ten female residents of the housing complex formed a group to conduct patrols twice a month to keep an eye on about 50 elderly families.

However, the group itself is formed by senior residents as well, making the members anxious as to whether continuing the patrols is realistic.

“Nine out of the 10 women of the group are in their 70s and taking care of ailing spouses themselves,” explained group member Yoko Oyama, 71.

“It would be so much harder to continue these patrols with just the older people if the younger generations continue to leave,” she added.

The national government issued a notice in November 2017, saying “local municipalities can take the liberty of introducing new criteria for rent exemptions, or raise the salary cap” for government-run apartment complexes that have accepted disaster victims.

With the government giving the green light for local municipalities to decide what is best for their residents, other municipalities in Miyagi Prefecture have taken the matter into their own hands.

Kesennuma, for example, decided that they wouldn’t raise the rent for another 10 years, and the town of Onagawa decided to raise the salary cap for such apartment complexes to a monthly wage of ¥259,000.

Iwate and Fukushima prefectures also already have plans in place to provide housing support to disaster survivors on a prefectural level.

Iwate has set a new rent cap for disaster victims who reside in housing complexes managed by the prefectural government. Fukushima plans to introduce a system that will lower the rent for evacuees of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster to pre-disaster levels.

However, Sendai has no plans to create new housing subsidy measures for disaster survivors.

The municipal government’s reasoning is that there are alternatives available within the city for residents who can’t afford the new rent.

“There is plenty of private accommodation in Sendai, especially compared to other areas along the coast. Those alternatives make it possible for residents to find accommodation that will fit their own, unique needs,” said Kenji Nishimoto, an official who works for the Sendai Municipal Government.

“All we are asking is for residents to find a new home that they can afford within their means,” he added.

A citizens group based in Sendai dedicated to post-quake recovery has asked the city to step up their efforts to aid disaster-stricken residents, saying that “increasing the rent will only hinder efforts to help disaster survivors become independent.”

The group also believes that “communities will fall apart with the exodus of younger generations — people who we had hoped would be tasked with leading neighborhood community groups.”

Although many had hoped that Miyagi Prefecture would take the lead in creating a unified rent exemption plan for the whole of Miyagi, the prefectural-level government “didn’t have an incentive to plan it,” said one municipal official who didn’t want to be named.

A neighborhood community group leader for a residence in Sendai’s Miyagino Ward, Yukio Matsutani, 66, questioned whether “it is acceptable for there to be such a huge gap in the level of support disaster survivors get” simply because one local government decided to take the issue more seriously than other, neighboring governments.

Matsutani hopes that a new legal provision would allow for disaster survivors to continue their lives in public apartment complexes.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original articles were published on July 7 and 26.

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