Deciphering Japan’s vacant home numbers

Vacant homes Japan

A lot of fuss is made over the large number of vacant homes across Japan (8.2 million residential properties in 2013). Some lament about how wasteful it is for empty homes to sit unused, while others suggest a huge potential market in filling these empty homes, even converting them for use by foreign tourists.

These suggestions and critiques, however, fail to take into account the fact that many of these empty homes have fallen into serious disrepair and may be in locations so remote or unpopular that there is simply no demand for them.

On November 20, the Ministry of Land, announced the results of their investigation into the vacant home numbers. Of the total vacant housing stock, approximately 42% were vacant for ‘other reasons’ (eg. not holiday homes and not vacant homes that have yet to be moved into by their owners).

Of the total vacant housing stock, 41.9% are said to be in various states of deterioration and damage, making them largely inhabitable. Of the ‘other’ vacant homes, 58.9% are deteriorated. This may refer to roofs that are warped and structures that are leaning. Of the homes built before 1950, over 50% are said to have structural problems.

Why are these homes left to decay? According to the MLIT’s survey, 56.4% of the owners of these ‘other’ vacant homes had inherited them from family members and have no use for them. Demolition or renovation costs are seen as a waste of money (demolition costs money and property taxes may increase if the house is demolished, while renovating a house may be futile if the owner does not plan to ever use it, or if it is in an area with no rental or re-sale potential). Selling the unused property may also be impossible if it is in an area with no demand for housing.

Of the 3.2 million ‘other’ vacant homes, only 480,000 are said to offer any potential for residential use (eg. they meet current earthquake-resistant construction standards, are within 1 kilometre from the nearest train station, and are not in a serious state of disrepair).

In May 2015, the government introduced measures that would give local governments the authority to forcibly demolish abandoned homes and structures that were considered to pose a serious risk to neighbours and the environment. The process is time-consuming and costly for local governments.

For the small number of empty homes that do have some potential for re-use, there are some examples where local communities and property owners cooperate to restore and find new uses for these old properties. Local governments in some areas have started ‘Vacant Home Banks’ where empty homes are listed for sale on government websites, linking sellers with potential buyers.

Gojo Nara
A renovated townhouse in Gojo City, Nara Prefecture.
Shobara Hiroshima
Former row houses in Shobara City, Hiroshima, converted into a community centre.

Source: The Sankei Shimbun, November 20, 2015.

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