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There were some 8.2 million vacant houses — or one in seven — nationwide as of October 2013. This record number represents more than a twofold increase over the past 25 years. A new law aimed at coping with problems related to them took effect on Monday. Both the public and private sectors need to work out measures under the law to reduce the hazards posed by vacant houses such as fires and collapse but also to reduce their numbers.

Behind the increase in empty houses is the graying of the nation’s population and a population flight to urban areas. When aging rural residents die or move to nursing homes, their houses end up unoccupied because their children, who often live and work in cities, have no interest in moving back.

More than 400 municipalities have enacted by-laws to deal with vacant houses. In response to calls for similar efforts on the national level, the Abe administration initiated the new law, which the Diet enacted in November. Targeted by the law are vacant houses that are in danger of collapse, contain garbage that poses health risks, or are deemed to be blighted. Once such properties are categorized as “specially designated vacant houses,” municipality officials can enter them and identify their owners by using fixed-assets tax information. The municipalities can then request the owners to eliminate the hazards and if they refuse to comply, the municipal authorities can demolish the houses.

The legal powers given to municipalities are expected to help them proceed with steps they deem necessary and appropriate in a legal manner. But municipalities must strictly follow the procedures spelled out in the law, so resolving problems may take a long time. Municipalities should share the knowledge they gain in applying this law with other authorities and the national government with the aim of improving the law as necessary.

What is more important will be adopting measures to reduce the number of vacant houses. In a commendable move, several regional banks in Kyushu have started providing low-interest loans to people who plan to demolish their unoccupied houses. Other banks should follow suit.

Developing the market for the sale of pre-owned houses will also be important. In North America and Europe, houses retain or increase their value over a long period because maintenance is regularly carried out, and used homes account for 60 to 90 percent of the housing market. The corresponding figure in Japan is slightly more than 10 percent.

The national government, the housing industry and the financial sector should develop measures that will help expand the market for used houses. The measures should include expansion of the house renovation industry, expanding the system to evaluate the real-estate value of used houses and improve tax measures and bank loans for those who want to renovate their houses as well as for those who want to buy used properties.

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