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Vacancies high in public housing for disaster-hit people in northeast Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A public housing unit built for disaster victims is seen in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, at 6:30 p.m. on March 2.

In a predicament for municipalities that operate public housing units built for people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the vacancy rate for these units is much higher than the nationwide figure, according to a poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Of the about 30,000 of these public housing units constructed in the three most-affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi, nearly 2,400 units, or 8%, were vacant as of the end of 2020. The vacancy figure for the nation’s public housing units as a whole stands at 2.1%.

Vacancies at public housing units in the three prefectures are likely to increase in the future due to factors such as the aging of residents, prompting local governments to search for alternative ways to use the facilities.

Public housing for those affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which is referred to as “post-quake reconstruction housing,” was built in eight prefectures, mainly in the Tohoku region, and the central government subsidized seven-eighths of the development costs for the local governments that operate the facilities.

Under the public housing law, such units are to be made available only to those who have lost their homes in the first three years following a disaster. Thereafter, who occupies the units is left to the discretion of local governments.

The poll was conducted in January and February with inquires made to 56 municipalities that built post-quake reconstruction housing in the three prefectures as well as the Fukushima and Iwate prefectural governments.

The survey covered 29,649 reconstruction housing units. The number of vacancies stood at 1,098 in Fukushima Prefecture, or 14% of its total; 506 in Iwate Prefecture, or 9% of its total; and 778 in Miyagi Prefecture, or 5% of its total.

Post-quake reconstruction housing is classified as a type of public-run housing. Local governments provide those who have lost their homes with such units at low rents.

In the case of the 2011 earthquake, both the central and local governments have established exceptional systems of rent assistance enabling residents, in some cases, to live in the units for several thousand yen per month.

Temporary housing was set up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Those who were unable to have their homes rebuilt on their own would then often move into public housing units. However, after moving into these units, some rebuilt their houses or move to other areas to find employment, which caused vacancies in the facilities to increase, according to local governments.

The financial burden due to maintenance and operational expenses grows as vacancies increase. On the other hand, there are concerns over declining public safety and the isolation of residents who choose to stay.

Many local municipalities are seeking prospective residents other than those affected by the disaster to live in the units. In Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, about 10% of the residents occupying reconstruction housing units are people who were not severely affected by the 2011 disaster.

In Fukushima Prefecture, however, where the vacancy rate is the highest, residents not impacted by the disaster account for only 4% of the total.

The financial support extended by the central government’s assistance program for low-income earners is reduced in stages and ends 10 years after the time the housing units are first operated. As such, some local governments are expected to have no choice but to raise rents, making it likely that vacancy rates will rise further.

Even after the central government’s subsidies have been reduced, some local governments have kept rents the same by making up the difference on their own out of consideration for those impacted by the disaster.

“If subsidies continue to come out of our budget, the city’s financial condition will become more severe,” said an official at the municipal government of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, raising a call for the central government to continue extending subsidies to local governments.