The estimated number of uninhabited houses across Japan continues to rise as the supply of newly built properties keeps growing despite the declining population, while the demolition of unused homes or efforts to list them on the market make slow progress. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, there were 260,000 more vacant houses in Japan last October than five years earlier. The number was put at a record 8.46 million, accounting for 13.6 percent of Japan’s total.

Unoccupied and badly maintained houses are not just an eyesore; they are safety hazards in terms of their potential use in crimes and the danger that they could collapse during a natural disaster, injuring anyone nearby and creating obstacles to rescue efforts.

Legislation that was passed in 2015 and designed to deal with this growing problem empowered municipal authorities to tear down properties that pose safety problems. The latest data indicate such efforts have so far not had much effect. The national and local governments should work together to stop the problem from becoming more serious as the population decline steepens.

The ratio of vacant homes to the total number of houses nationwide stood at 2 percent in 1958 but had climbed to 5.5 percent by 1973 following the rapid postwar economic growth, and surged to 11.5 percent as of 1998 after the collapse of the asset-inflated bubble boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As of last October, the total number of houses reached 62.42 million, an increase of 1.79 million from the last survey taken in 2013. Of that number, 53.66 million were occupied, up 1.55 million from five years earlier. Construction of new properties keeps rising amid robust demand due to an increase in the number of single-member households. On the other hand, the number of unoccupied houses grows as efforts to demolish them or put habitable properties on the secondhand market go slow.

Of the uninhabited houses, the largest group — 4.31 million — are properties up for rent but lack tenants. However, there are 3.47 million others — an increase of 290,000 from five years earlier — whose occupants have either died or have moved elsewhere on a long-term basis after being hospitalized or transferred for work reasons, or are awaiting demolition. The internal affairs ministry survey covers only the properties that appear to be in livable condition. Officials indicate that the total number of vacant houses would rise considerably if homes that are so damaged as to be uninhabitable are included.

Government policy tends to encourage construction and supply of new properties; for instance, economic stimulus efforts include such measures as tax breaks on housing loans. Since homebuyers also prefer new properties, the demand for secondhand houses remains limited. Experts point out that to reduce vacancy among houses that are still in habitable condition, they need to be promptly put on the market. However, such efforts by government authorities are reportedly hampered by their insufficient knowledge about real estate transactions.

The government has taken steps to deal with the problem. The 2015 law enables municipal authorities to take charge of properly managing vacant houses if their owners — who in principle bear responsibility for their management — are unable to fulfill their duty due to financial or other reasons. Municipalities identify uninhabited properties that are at risk of collapsing if left deserted and advise, guide or order their owners to repair or demolish them. Municipalities can demolish such homes if the owners refuse to comply — with the expense shouldered by the owners. However, this process is time-consuming since it often takes a while just to identify and locate the owners of deserted houses and, if the owners have died, the people who inherited them. This problem is also compounded by the shortage of manpower at the municipal level to take charge of the task. A survey of municipalities also showed that many of them face trouble getting the owners of properties that have been demolished to pay the expenses.

The government has also revamped a system in which vacant houses in rural areas are registered as prospective rental properties for people considering resettling in those areas. Although such a system is reported to have enabled some rural municipalities to stop the increase of uninhabited houses in their communities, the internal affairs ministry survey indicates that use of the system continues to be sluggish in many municipalities. The government needs to disseminate among all municipalities the lessons from the successful efforts to tackle the problem — and identify what needs to be done to expedite such efforts. It should also consider resorting to private sector know-how in promoting the use of vacant houses as secondhand properties.

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