These days, the problem of unoccupied houses is often featured by TV, magazines, and newspapers. According to a statistical investigation of homes and land by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the number of unoccupied houses in Japan is 8.2 million, compared to the total number of residences, 60.63 million, as of October, 2013. This means that, 13.5% of homes are unoccupied, a record high. This will only become more serious, due to the decreasing birthrate and aging population.
What are the factors causing this problem? Building of new building, inability to prepare demolition costs, inability to solve inheritance problems, inability to find buyers and tenants etc… There are several factors causing the problem. In particular, this problem is severe in suburban areas. 40 years ago, such suburban areas were mostly developed. Residents added the years of their lives to the history of the area. Children started to live by themselves, independently in the heart of the city. The parents left behind are now in their 60s or 70s. Many people left their houses to live in a home for the elderly or in hospitals. Other people go to live in apartments in cities, saying that that houses are too big for just two people, or that there isn’t enough transportation accessible to elderly people. The change in the sense of values also has caused problems. There were few two-income families in the past. But now such couples hope to live the city due to the convenience of transportation. On the other hand, real estate taxes also bring a new kind of problem to the issue of unoccupied houses. Under Japanese municipal property tax law, people need to pay 7 times more taxes on empty lots than on residential land. Reductions are applied to decrepit, dangerous houses, which means that rather than demolishing a home, people will typically leave it standing. Some unoccupied houses introduce risk into neighborhoods. Sometimes, such houses are the target of arson. Although such unoccupied houses are increasing rapidly, newly built houses are increasing at the rate of 800,000 per year. In 2003, 990 thousands house were built newly, as a last minute surge in demand before the increase in consumer tax from 5% to 8%. This kind of situation was an unprecedented phenomenon.
Some laws are being prepared calling for the proper management and removal of such property. But in recent years, “the bank of unoccupied houses” has also grown. This is the system for connecting owners of unoccupied houses and possible buyers or tenants to facilitate the distribution of unoccupied houses, provided by local governments.
For example, Yamanashi city adopted this system as the percentage of unoccupied houses in Yamanashi prefecture (eastern Japan) was at 21%, the highest percentage in all prefectures in previous noted statistics. Yamanashi city (the capital of Yamanashi prefecture) started this system in 2006. By drawing people from out of town to occupy unoccupied houses, the city believed this system would prove productive not only for solving the unoccupied house problem, but also for increasing the population, contributing to local revitalization and increasing tax revenue. But after the system was put in place, there were many difficulties to successfully match owners and buyers, due to local people’s fixed mindsets and administrative problems.
Amid the existing circumstances, local public bodies, which are not well versed in real estate, need help bringing contracts to conclusion. Without such help, they worried over complicated contract negotiations, various troubles, and many complaints. They also couldn’t gain the understanding of local people about the reason why self-governing bodies were involved in the real estate business. There are a lot of difficulties that had to be overcome until they established the current bank of unoccupied houses, under which people can move into unoccupied house without worry through close cooperation with a registered real-estate broker association. They succeeded in making the system and gained understanding of the market. But they still needed to gain the cooperation of citizens to list properties, as real estate agents could not register them as their own. In the first half-year after the system was in place, only 4 properties were listed. For citizens, such houses were important possessions, inherited from their ancestors. Thus, buying or renting proved a momentous decision. After establishing the system, the creators faced the problem of changing the local people’s way of thinking. There were thus many difficulties on the road to smooth operation today.
Presently, properties, primarily Kominka, are listed on the bank and prepared through the following process.
- Registration the bank
- Observation of the property : Not only staff of self-governing body, but also a member of the real-estate broker association in order to give advice to customers.
- Negotiation with owner : Mediated by the real estate broker association.
As further efforts, city officials look for unoccupied houses by walking through local communities looking for houses that could be registered. They have also started a new service, a “rural-life experience” for registrants of the bank. The participants stay in the facility for 5 days in Yamanashi city and submit a report. It’s free to join. Opinions from the report are precious information for detection of current problems in order to create new policy from now on.
On the other hand, in Nara prefecture (western Japan), NPOs lead this kind of business. The “Yamato Nara bank network association” connects people who want to live in Kominka with people who want to sell them. The special feature of the NPO is the management style. They manage the business not per municipality, but prefecture-wide in order to meet various demands. They transmit not only information about unoccupied houses, but also hold events.
Meanwhile, in Yamagata prefecture (North Japan), a certain woman started the “cleaning unoccupied houses project”. She focused on the fact that there are few managed unoccupied house in the city she lived in. 12 people were gathered by her to collect garbage. One day, they collected 2,000kg over 7 hours. Cleared out houses were given new roles as storage rooms. The woman continues to search out unoccupied house, negotiate with the owners, gather volunteers, clean them, return available items to the owners, create new roles for the houses, and continue to look for such houses again. Though it’s a simple process, they enjoy the work and hope to return value to unoccupied houses.
The problem of unoccupied house cannot be solved easily, however such simple efforts by some local groups are moving us toward solutions day by day.