One of the free homes

The mountainous town of Okutama, located in the distant western reach of the Tokyo metropolitan government area, has launched a “0 Yen Vacant House Bank” on the town’s homepage to help owners dispose of their empty and idle homes.

The page was launched in late June, with 3 properties listed. The intent is to connect the owners with people looking to take over these unused homes for free. The town only connects the two parties and does not assist with the actual contract or property transfer procedures. 

Okutama is no stranger to giving away homes for free. Back in 2015 they began offering a limited selection of empty homes for free to entice young families. By 2018, a total of 78 households with 236 residents had moved in under this program. Unlike the existing programs, the new 0 Yen Vacant House Bank does not come with any age limitations or requirements to live in the home for a specified period of time.

The three free homes

Recent estimates put the total number of empty homes in Okutama at around 480. There’s often a good reason that these vacant homes have no underlying value – the land has no market value, some are over a 30-minute walk from the nearest road, on hilly cliffside with the risk of landslides, lacking basic infrastructure, and often rotted to the point of being uninhabitable.

The town is 73 kilometers west of Shinjuku, or close to a two-hour train ride. It has been suffering from a rapidly aging and shrinking local population, and the free home program seems to have little effect. As of July 2020, the town had 5,017 residents, down 8.5% from 2015, and down 70% from its peak in 1950. Over 49% of residents are over the age of 65. The climate can be harsh for residents. The town receives some of the highest snowfall in the Tokyo area with as much as 1 meter of snow in some parts during winter. During heavy snowfall in February 2014, the roads to some of the smaller communities in town were temporarily cut off.

Okutama Town Homepage, June 30, 2020.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2020.