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At a time when inexpensive public apartments are in short supply due to rising demand, the government is weighing measures to promote the use of vacant homes to serve as housing for low-income citizens. Such steps could serve the dual purpose of building a housing safety net for the growing ranks of elderly and young people trying to survive on low incomes, and dealing with an increasing number of vacant houses that potentially pose threats to the public safety and other hazards. Officials need to design the policy in such ways that it effectively boosts the supply of low-cost housing.

The aging of Japan’s population and the increase in irregular jobs has led to a rise in the number of low-income households comprising senior citizens or unmarried young people. But the supply of inexpensive public apartments — which number 2.16 million units nationwide — is declining, particularly in areas suffering from depopulation where local governments, under the constraints of tight fiscal coffers, hesitate to build new apartments. Even in urban areas where the supply shortage is more acute, local authorities are under pressure to build more nursing care facilities for the elderly and day care centers for small children, making it difficult for them to come up with funding for the construction of public housing.

As of fiscal 2014, there was an average of 5.8 times more applicants for public housing units than supply across the country. In Tokyo, applicants outnumbered supply by 22.8 to 1. Building more public apartments to meet all of such demand will not be feasible from a fiscal standpoint.

On the other hand, the number of vacant houses, including those for sale and available to rent, stood at 8.2 million nationwide, or roughly 1 out of 7 houses, in fiscal 2013 — and is expected to rise further as the nation’s population declines. The government has been taking steps to reduce the number of vacant houses — for example by trying to promote sales of used properties in better shape and by encouraging the demolition of unoccupied houses that could pose fire hazards and other potential problems when natural disasters strike. Using vacant homes to bolster the supply of low-cost housing seems to make sense.

The question will be how to create a pool of decent and affordable properties for low-income citizens.

A midterm report on the issue compiled in July by a panel of experts at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry calls for government support for property owners to cover the cost of renovating houses to make them quake-resistant and barrier-free for the convenience of elderly residents, with the conditions that they rent the properties at below-market rates and that they don’t discriminate against potential occupants. The government is also reportedly considering subsidizing part of the rent for occupants with extremely low incomes.

Under the envisaged system, owners of vacant houses will register their properties with local governments and qualified prospective residents — the elderly and other low-income citizens, as well as child-rearing couples who need lots of space for their children — will search the database at municipalities for properties they can afford.

The planned system will likely target vacant houses and apartments that are not being actively listed on the rental market — so that the properties can be made available at rents lower than market rates.

Some municipalities have taken measures to rent out private-sector houses and apartments and utilize them as public housing, or have tried to make inexpensive properties available for low-income households in cooperation with real estate firms. But such efforts have often been hampered by concerns on the part of landlords that low-income tenants may fail to pay rent or that they could experience problems if elderly tenants die in their properties. As a result, the amount of housing supplied through such measures has been limited.

The cooperation of property owners and real estate agents will be crucial for the success of the planned scheme, thus it needs to be designed in a way that will make them willing to rent their properties to the elderly and other low-income citizens. The land ministry panel’s report calls for clarification of the rules on when tenants have to vacate rented properties at the time the contracts are signed. Other ideas to dispel property owners’ concerns could include requiring tenants to subscribe to debt-guarantee services to cover possible unpaid rent, or having local governments rent the properties and then sublet them to the tenants.

Housing is the foundation of the “minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” as guaranteed to “all people” under the Constitution. National and local governments are urged to consider every possible step to ensure affordable residences for low-income earners.

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