Archive for the ‘regulations & policy’ Category

Low priorities

December 15, 2013

DSCF2013It’s become an almost trite litany in the media: the poor become poorer and the rich richer, with the middle class mostly shrinking and absorbed by the former. The conventional narrative says that free market capitalism makes this so, as governments in the free world become “smaller” and thus less likely to regulate economic functions. But more fundamental to the issue is the idea that priorities are shifting away from the poor.

An article in the Dec. 3 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports on a survey completed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in September and just released to the public. The survey collected data from local governments regarding public buildings, including apartments and schools. One of the more startling statistics is 12,251, which represents the total number of these buildings that local governments throughout Japan, both prefectural and municipal, want to tear down. The estimated cost of this mass demolition would be ¥403.9 billion, a huge burden for municipalities, most of which are cash-strapped anyway. But the cost of maintaining these buildings is probably higher, since it’s an ongoing expense. The reasons local governments want to tear down these buildings is simple: they’re old–the average age is 41 years–and the population is expected to continue decreasing. This number doesn’t include buildings that will be renovated or replaced after they are destroyed. It’s only buildings that will be gone for good. At the time the survey was conducted, 40 percent of these buildings were in use, while 47 percent were not in use at all and were thus shuttered. As far as plans for demolition go, 32 percent will be torn down “within a year or two” while the fate of 41 percent was “not known” at the time.

It’s a huge number, but if you’re at all familiar with construction trends in Japan it’s probably not shocking. Just walk through any business district in Tokyo and marvel at how many new skyscrapers are going up, replacing other buildings that were put up only thirty or so years ago. Buildings in Japan are notoriously short-lived, and, of course, outside of the large cities there is even less reason for keeping buildings that no longer serve a function. Populations and tax bases continue to shrink, so there is no need to maintain a school that has no students, or a public housing project that’s only 30 percent full. (more…)

Pump it up

December 1, 2013
All's well that ends with a well

All’s well that ends with a well

Before construction could start we had to dig a well. Though our land was nominally within a housing development, it was a rather small one; basically a piece of wooded property surrounded by farmland that had been sold to a real estate company, which had divided it up for sale. But calling it a “housing development” is pushing it, since the usual infrastructure wasn’t available: no waterworks, sewerage, or gas lines. Technically, the land isn’t zoned for residences. It exists in that bureaucratic limbo known as shigaika chosei kuiki, which means an “area being adjusted for urban use,” but for all intents and purposes it’s land that does not have infrastructure but nevertheless is being sold for a profit. We cannot actually build on the land until the local land authority gives us permission, so buying it before the fact would seem to entail a risk, but these kinds of sales happen all the time and are always approved. We could see that for ourselves, since there were already five finished houses in this development and they had gone through the same thing. Over the past three years we had looked at many properties that were also classified as shigaika chosei kuiki, and in many ways they were more to our liking since lots that were already approved for residential construction tended to be in housing developments built by developers, meaning they were densely populated, and we wanted more breathing room. The thing about infrastructure is that most of it is built by private or semi-private entities who aren’t going to extend utilities to areas where they won’t see a profit, and a dinky little housing development of eight homes in an agricultural area where farming families have been living for generations without infrastructure isn’t worth it. Interestingly, the border of Chiba New Town is only a 10-minute walk from our property, and anything within that massive, 40-year-old development project, which incorporates portions of three cities, has access to all the usual infrastructure. But proximity means nothing. We might as well be living on the moon. Though we had already paid for the land and gave the go ahead to have the well dug, we called up the semi-public water authority whose bailiwick was closest to our property and asked about future prospects of waterworks being extended to our neck of the woods. We were essentially told that it would never happen. A little more research revealed that water usage throughout Japan peaked around 2001 and has been dropping ever since, and because local water authorities’ funding comes from customer billing and not from any public outlay they have less money with which to lay new pipe than they had in the past, so there’s absolutely no incentive to extend waterworks to any areas except those that guarantee a large customer base. (more…)

The burden of expectations (4)

October 19, 2013

CIMG2562As quickly as we could we collected the necessary documents for JA. Since they asked for three years’ worth of tax information we not only had to go back to the Narita tax bureau, we had to go into Tokyo to ask for proof of local taxes that we paid to Arakawa Ward for the first half of 2011, since that’s where we were living. Also proof of health insurance payments. We wondered what we would have had to do if we’d moved much farther away. As it was, going into Tokyo was enough of a pain in the ass since the different offices always seem to be crowded.

We submitted all the documents to the loan officer, who said it would take a few weeks for them to look through them but he had already assured us we were good. At this point a curious thought occurred to us. We had told A-1 that we were going to borrow money from JA. We expected N to act put out since he had gone to the trouble of introducing us to SBI, but in the end he didn’t really care. As long as we had the money he couldn’t complain. But, in actuality, we didn’t have the money, and wouldn’t for a long time. A lending institution won’t transfer the funds attached to a loan for a new home, meaning one that is being occupied for the first time, until the home is ready to be occupied, and in our case that wouldn’t be until Christmas at the earliest. In fact, we hadn’t signed the contract with A-1 yet, though it had been drawn up. The sticking point for us was the payment schedule. First we had to pay the design fee up front, which was about half a million yen. Then when we sign the contract, we pay a portion of the construction cost, almost a third. And then, when the roof beams have been completed, about two months into contruction, we pay another third. The last payment is made when the house is completed. So that means before the money for the loan is transferred into our account, we have to pay two-thirds of the cost of the house on top of the money we had to shell out for the land. If we had bought a house already completed, then it would be no problem, but we’re having it built. In our case it isn’t that bad because we had initially planned to pay cash for everything, land and house, until we realized that we would have to increase our budget if we wanted to own a place that fit our minimum conditions and needs. So we do have enough cash to make all the payments. It’s just that we will be broke until the loan comes through. But what about people who don’t have that much cash on hand, people who are borrowing almost all of the money needed to build their houses? What if they’re buying a condo based on a design, meaning the actual structure won’t be completed for another year or two? Again, if you’re working with a developer or a builder, they will make everything as smooth as possible, since they will likely be working hand-in-hand with a lending institution. For people like us who are doing everything themselves, there are special intermediary loans called tsunagi-yushi that you can take out to make the initial and mid-term payments, but they require another screening process and often have higher interest rates. Since they’re usually paid back when the housing loan comes through the payments don’t last long, but during that period if the borrower is, say, paying rent, it could be a real burden, depending on how long it takes to put up the house or condo. So that’s another expense you might have to deal with if you’re building a house. (more…)

The burden of expectations (3)

September 15, 2013
What we're trying to avoid

What we’re trying to avoid

We went to Tsukuba on a Friday, and the following Monday the woman from SBI Mortgage called and said we had cleared the preliminary screening. She had already given us a checklist of the documents we would need to submit for the final screening and so we started to collect them. It’s a time-consuming process because many documents are required and you have to go to different government offices to get them. The woman had already photocopied our drivers licenses, national health cards, and three years worth of tax returns. Now we had to get real proof of our worth, so to speak. The easiest to obtain was proof of residence (juminhyo) from the local city office. The checklist still had gaikokujin toroku shomeisho, meaning proof of an alien registration card, but the Foreign Ministry had phased out registration cards last year. We could also pick up inkan shomeisho, meaning proof of registered seals, at city hall. In bureaucracy-obsessed Japan, seals remain the looniest relic, since anyone could go to the store and buy one with another person’s name on it and use it in that person’s stead. Signatures are still not commonly used for purposes of witness and certification, though they’re obviously more individual. In order to somehow safeguard the seal as a means of certification you are supposed to register yours at your local government office, and then when called upon by a party with whom you are drawing up a contract you bring that party “proof” from the local government office that the seal you are using is kosher, though I have no idea how counterpart parties check this evidence unless they’re experts in wood-block printing.

A bit more difficult to secure was proof of our income for the last two years. The copies of our joint tax return were used for the preliminary screening but for the next phase they needed actual documents from both the national and local tax bureaus where we lived, which meant taking a trip to Narita as well as a trip into Tokyo, since we lived in Arakawa Ward for the first six months of 2011. In Narita we could also go to the local branch office of the Justice Ministry to obtain records on the land we were planning to buy–history of ownership as well as the official registered survey map of the plot, or, in our case, plots, since the land we were buying was actually two adjoining lots, one about 200 square meters and the other a mere 20 square meters. This smaller plot would prove to be a hassle, but more on that in a later post. On Tuesday we took a trip to Narita to get the documents we could. (more…)

Easy go

August 16, 2013

New housing will always be a prime economic mover in Japan even as the population drops, so the sector needs all the help it can get. Right now new housing is seeing a boost due to the expected consumption tax increase next year. Buyers are trying to make deals before the tax goes into effect, but what happens afterwards? Real estate and housing companies are worried there will be an even bigger slump once that happens, so the government says it plans to allow financing rates of up to 100 percent for long-term fixed rate loans, or so-called Flat 35 mortgages. That means borrowers who qualify don’t have to put any money down. At present, a borrower has to put at least 10 percent down.

This happened once before. In 2009, when the recession was at its worst, the government allowed no-down-payment loans but it was a temporary measure and ended in March 2012. Of course, some people are worried since such loans are considered risky, so as part of the proposal screening of applicants will be made stricter, though the details have yet to be worked out. In addition, some of the Liberal Democratic Party’s ruling coalition partners want to provide handouts of up to ¥300,000 to people who are approved for housing loans but whose income is less than ¥5.1 million a year. This handout would offset the effect of the consumption tax increase. (more…)

Home Truths, July 2013

July 2, 2013

DSCF4478 Here is our latest Home Truths column in the Japan Times, about mobile homes in Japan.

Home Truths, May 2013

May 14, 2013

CIMG2235Here is this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about land stability, a topic we’ve discussed only in passing in this blog.

Highrises revisited

March 16, 2013

DSCF1857Though we miss living in Tokyo, especially shitamachi, we don’t really miss the highrise kodan where we spent eleven years. Until the earthquake our main complaint was the mostly insular nature of highrise life, the feeling that it was always difficult to get in and out, but during those weeks after the temblor it became a nerve-wracking experience, even as we became convinced that the structure was safe. We wrote a number of posts here about that experience and even one related column for the Japan Times (though it seems to have been taken off the JT site). For a while the media and the market seemed to concur with us that highrises may not be a wise option for a city that could be hit with its own big earthquake at any time, but eventually fears subsided and highrise condos started selling again; quite well, in fact, so we assumed our fears were just our own and didn’t extend to the general population. Even Tsutomu Yamashita, a housing journalist who is unusually frank about these sorts of matters, has come around and said that investing in a highrise Tokyo condo is a good idea since they’ve become even safer since the quake.

A recent article in Aera, however, has confirmed our initial sentiments. Opening with a frightening “what-if” scenario describing a 7.3 magnitude quake happening under the capital, the feature makes the case that even though these highrises will not collapse, life will essentially be impossible in them indefinitely. The most immediate concern, and the one that made the biggest impression on us in the aftermath of the 311 quake, whose epicenter was hundreds of kilometers away, was the loss of elevators, which shut down automatically when a building shakes. According to law, they can only be turned on by a certified technician, which means even when the shaking stops residents will have to wait for that technician to show up, and he may be inspecting other highrises. This problem multiplies with the intensity of the jolt. And if the quake is strong enough to knock out electricity, then the elevator problem is exacerbated. Under such circumstances, the residents on higher floors become like “people stranded on the top of a mountain in bad weather.” The idea of walking down and then up emergency stairways to run errands or whatever is just impractical, and virtually impossible for the elderly, the handicapped, and pregnant women. Most highrises have emergency generators, but these are for contingencies and thus only have enough power for maybe two hours. So if the elevators are out due to loss of power, that means the stairways are also dark. And even if the building structure is sound, some elements, such as doorframes, could be compromised, making it difficult to get out of an apartment. All highrises have emrgency ladders connecting verandas for use during fires, but it will be very difficult to use them to get all the way to the ground. The Tokyo metropolitan government has said that in the event of a major quake their estimate is that it will take at least a week to recover electrical power. Also, highrise residents will likely be lower down on the list of people receiving attention during rescue operations because of the difficulty for crews to access higher floors. Emergency services will first attend to victims they can reach more easily. (more…)

Time’s up

January 25, 2013
Kobe 1997

Kobe 1997

While victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami continue to struggle with housing issues almost two years into their ordeal, a group of refugees from an earlier natural disaster has been given notice that they will soon be on their own. Ever since the 18th anniversary on Jan. 17 of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, various media have reported on the notifications distributed by local governments to residents of 6,600 rental units saying that they have two years to vacate their apartments. These people were living in public housing for low-income residents when the earthquake struck in 1995, and most of their dwellings were destroyed, so the governments of Hyogo Prefecture and six cities made contracts with private landlords. The residents paid as much rent as they could in accordance with their incomes and the local governments made up the rest. The deal was limited to 20 years, which means that between 2015 and 2017, depending on when they moved in, the tenants will have to move out of their current apartments, either to public housing or somewhere else. Most of these people are elderly, and the public housing (shiei jutaku) that has been built in the meantime tends to be located far from where they presently live. They are reluctant to move at their age, having formed bonds with their neighborhoods and their neighbors, which are extremely important in terms of mental and physical well-being.

The authorities say they have given the tenants ample notice. According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, announcements were first distributed in 2010, and the contracts the residents signed when they first moved is stipulated the 20-year limit, though supporters of the tenants point out that this term is vaguely stated and buried in small print. Most of the apartment buildings were hastily constructed by developers right after the earthquake in anticipation of just such a need for low-income housing. With local governments guaranteeing the rents of tenants, it was a virtual goldmine for landlords, which include semi-public housing juggernaut UR, and one can easily imagine that the landlords are fully supportive of the residents who are protesting the pending evictions since they themselves will lose revenue as a result–the rental housing market is not in good shape. The mayor of Nishinomiya recently received a petition with 3,251 signatures.

The local governments have said there’s nothing they can do about the situation since the 20-year limit is built into the civil code and Public Housing Law, even though the law itself was revised right after the earthquake to allow commercial properties to be used for public housing (kariage fukko jutaku). Some media, including the Japan Communist Party organ Akahata, mention that the controversy has ramifications for the current situation in Tohoku. As in Hyogo, private developers have been invited to build rental housing for people who lost homes to the tsunami or nuclear disaster, and apparently the authorities learned their lessons in Kobe because they are explaining to tenants that there is a 20-year limit. Of course, in Tohoku there are considerations that people in Kobe didn’t have to worry about, so at the moment a 20-year lease may be the least of their problems.

Get on it

September 9, 2012

Small item in the Tokyo Shimbun reported that on Sept. 8 the land ministry announced a policy to “step forward” in developing a system to provide potential homeowners with information about earthquake-proofing and renovation histories of used properties put on the market. As it stands, real estate agents who list homes for sale include information about price, layout, size, age, and location, but usually not much else unless you ask, and even then they are sometimes reluctant about things like quake-proofing since they don’t want to be responsible for such information. As far as renovations go, if the work was done recently in order to improve the value of a property, then, of course, the realtor will mention it, but if the work was done in the past there’s not much reason to if the cosmetic benefits are negligible.

The purpose of the land ministry policy is to expand the housing market to include more used homes. In 2008, only 13.5 percent of all homes sold in Japan were used, while the portion (in 2009) of same in the U.S. was 90.3 percent and in the UK 85.8 percent. The ministry thinks that if consumers had “more confidence” in used properties they would buy more. Typically, the ministry doesn’t have any concrete measures in mind to accomplish this confidence-building, but in the next budget they plan to ask for ¥50 million for “study,” meaning, presumably, looking into ways to help realtors include this information in their listings. Would they actually pass a law making it mandatory for realtors to tell potential buyers if a property was quake-proofed? That would be quite an undertaking since a lot of homeowners don’t even know the extent of the quake-proofing on their structures, or if there is any at all. All homes and condos constructed after 1980 are supposed to have been built to quake-proof standards, but given lead times on construction the standard probably didn’t become a full standard until the mid-80s. In any case, no one has done a proper study to find out how strictly the standards were carried out. One problem the ministry will have to consider when it spends its measly 50 million is what potential buyers can do to find out about quake-proofing. If a realtor doesn’t have that information and a buyer wants to know, who is going to pay for the inspection? For a single-family home a quake-proofing inspection can cost hundreds of thousands of yen; for a condominium building, a cool million. It’s easy to see why realtors, and the sellers they represent, want to avoid the subject, but the ministry doesn’t have that luxury. They say they want to stimulate the used housing market, but if there’s no reliable and reasonably priced system of assessing something as basic as quake-proofing then maybe the market isn’t even worth it.


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