Japan has so many empty houses that it's giving away - CNN

Editor's note: Japan's demographic statistics series has the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reports. The material in this series can not be reproduced without explicit credit for CNN and the Pulitzer Center.

Okutama, Japan (CNN) – Four years ago, Naoko and Ida Takayuki received a home. Free.

This is a spacious two-story house nestled in the trees on a winding rural road in the small town of Okutama, Tokyo Prefecture. Before moving out, the couple and their children, two teenagers and a five-year-old boy lived with Naoko's parents.

"We had to do a lot of repairs (in our new house), but we always wanted to live in the countryside and have a big garden," said Naoko, 45.

A free house may seem like a scam, but Japan faces an unusual property problem: it has more homes than people to live in.

In 2013, according to the Japan Policy Forum, there were 61 million homes and 52 million homes. And the situation is getting worse.

Naoko Ida turned an old Japanese-style house into a cafe.

The population of Japan is expected to decline from 127 million to about 88 million by 2065, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security, which means that even fewer people will need housing. While young people leave rural areas looking for work in the city, the Japanese countryside is besieged by deserted "ghost" houses, known as "akiya".

It is expected that by 2040, nearly 900 cities and villages across Japan will no longer exist, and Okutama is one of them. In that context, giving away a property is a gamble for survival.

"In 2014, we discovered that Okutama was one of the three cities in Tokyo (prefecture) that disappeared by 2040," says Kazutaka Niijima, an official of the Okutama Youth Revitalization Department, a government agency created to repopulate the city .

It is common to see empty houses in rural areas of Japan while the population decreases and many young people go to the city.

Bank diagrams of Akiya

Okutama is a two-hour train ride west from the Tokyo prefecture center, dominated by neon signs.

In the 60s it had a population of over 13,000 and a lucrative timber business. But after the liberalization of imports and the decline in demand for timber in the 90s, most of the young people went to the city. Currently, Okutama has only 5,200 residents.

In 2014, an "akiya bank" or an unoccupied housing plan was created, which corresponds to potential buyers with owners of the elderly and vacant properties.

While now the akiya banks are common throughout Japan, each city establishes its own conditions.

The akiya scheme is not limited only to the Japanese. They even gave homes to people who come from New York or China.

For example, Okutama subsidizes home repairs for new residents of Akiya and encourages Akiya owners to give up their vacant properties by offering up to $ 8,820 per 100 square meters.

However, it establishes that people who receive free assistance for the renovation or renting of a home must be under the age of 40 or a couple with at least one under 18 and a couple under the age of 50. Akiya candidates must also commit themselves to settling permanently in the city and investing in the renovation of second-hand housing.

But even giving houses is difficult in a country where people prefer new buildings.

On the left, a view of Okutama in 1955 and on the right a view of the construction of the Okutama dam, that year. (Credit: Okutama Town)

Second-hand homes

Niijima makes its way through an empty box-shaped house with a blue roof and white walls that was built 33 years ago. Although it looks robust from the outside, the smell of mold is a sign of the 10 years it has been abandoned. The kitchen needs renovation, and the tatami floor is faded.

"Suitable for someone who likes do-it-yourself," Niijima said with a smile.

There are 3000 houses in Okutama, and there are about 400 vacancies, of which only half can be saved. The rest is too damaged or have been built in areas at risk of landslides.

Kazutaka Niijima inside one of the Akita houses that Okutama will give away in 2019.

In the twentieth century, Japan experienced two major population peaks: the first after World War II and the second during the economic boom of the years & #.; 80. The lack of housing has led to the creation of cheap and mass housing that has quickly become densely populated cities and cities.

Many of these properties were of low quality, said Hidetaka Yoneyama, senior researcher at Fujitsu Research Institute. As a result, approximately 85% of people choose to buy new homes.

Even Japanese laws do not help.

In 2015, the government passed a law aimed at penalizing those who leave their homes empty, in an attempt to encourage them to demolish or renovate their properties. However, the owners of akiya charge more for the empty plots than to have an empty property, according to the real estate expert Toshihiko Yamamoto. This is an obstacle to devastating an empty house.

Even city planning regulations are weak in Japan, said Chie Nozawa, professor of architecture at Tokyo's Toyo University, which means developers can continue to build homes despite the obvious surplus.

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