Japanese public housing: It’s not just for poor people any more

September 6th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

The entrance to East Core Hikifune, a new UR high-rise in Sumida Ward, Tokyo

The entrance to East Core Hikifune, a new UR high-rise in Sumida Ward, Tokyo

Many agree with the new regime in Nagatacho that the bureaucracy needs to be reduced, but some of us may be more selective than others. I sincerely hope that the Urban Renaissance Agency (Toshi Saisei Kiko) remains untouched, because I rent an apartment from them. I could understand why the Koizumi administration wanted to privatize the agency, but was more than relieved when they failed. Renting a public apartment is much, much easier than renting a private one: there’s no need for a guarantor, no gift money (reikin), and no rental contract renewal fees (koshinryo), a “custom” that has been legally challenged but doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

One of the myths about public housing in Japan, at least among foreigners, is that it’s for poor people. Some public housing run by local governments is designated for low-income families, but UR rents are set by the market, so in theory they are the same as those for private apartments. However, because UR is not supposed to make a profit (strictly speaking, UR is a semi-public entity), in practice they tend to be cheaper. I calculate that the rent for my apartment is about 15-20 percent less than a comparably sized unit in the privately run building across the street. Moreover, the management fees (kanrihi) for public housing are lower than the ones for private housing.

Visitors checking layouts for East Core Hikifune

Visitors checking layouts for East Core Hikifune

These and other factors are the reasons why public housing is popular and, for certain buildings, difficult to get into. The older the building, the easier it is to move in, and, for sure, many public housing complexes, or “kodan” to use the vernacular, built before 1985 represent all that’s undesirable about Japanese housing in general. But lately UR (previously called Jutaku Kodan) has been at the vanguard of progress in terms of quality improvements in Japanese residential apartment living, and when a new building solicits tenants, we go and check it out to see how much better it is than what we’ve been renting for the past nine years.

Yesterday, we visited East Core Hikifune in Sumida Ward, specifically the 41-floor No. 2 building, which will start accepting tenants this fall. Usually, when you want to inspect a privately run rental apartment, you have to make an appointment with a realtor who shows you the kind of room you want. But when UR opens a new building, it’s an open house, meaning you can walk freely from one model room to another.

A view of Tokyo Sky Tree under construction

A view of Tokyo Sky Tree under construction

In terms of location, East Core is quite desirable: the Tobu Isezaki line and the Hanzomon and Asakusa Subway lines are within walking distance, and Asakusa is about a 20-minute stroll over the Sumida River to the west. However, the main logistical attraction has more to do with aesthetics: the Tokyo Sky Tree is being built only a couple of blocks away. In case you don’t know, Tokyo Sky Tree will replace Tokyo Tower as the city’s main broadcasting relay tower, and is much higher. Just as a view of Tokyo Tower boosts the price of a central Tokyo property, a view of the Sky Tree will make those who can afford one the envy of all their neighbors in the homier Shitamachi district.

And one thing we discovered right away is that if you have a unit on the south or west side of East Core — meaning the sides with a view of the Sky Tree you will pay considerably more. But the uniformed middle aged women who acted as guides for the open house were quick to point out that units on the north side would also have a nice view of the famous Sumida River fireworks. Given how often this information was delivered, it was obviously a bullet point in the manual.

The view west from the 38th floor

The view west from the 38th floor

But all the rents were pretty high. The cost for a unit with the same floor area as our apartment was about a third more than what we were paying; though, strangely enough, the management fee was less. (Probably because East Core has more units than our building.)

So why the big difference? It wasn’t location. Our kodan is even more convenient to Tokyo, with a subway line and a JR station. Discounting the view of the Sky Tree (until last year we had a view of Mount Fuji) and the fact that East Core is brand new, it mainly had to do with amenities.

Some were quite impressive: double windows that insured maximum insulation; floor heating in all the living-dining areas and air conditioners (cooling and heating) in all the other rooms; glass panels on the veranda railings for unobstructed views; built-in LAN connections in every room; video monitors to check visitors. Initially, these standard features were intoxicating, and the young couples moving from one model room to another, some with very young children in tow, oohed and aahed effusively.

A "box" bedroom placed next to the dining-living room

A “box” bedroom placed next to the dining-living room

And we did, too, mainly because we noticed immediately how much things had improved since our building was opened in 2000. The heating system was more sensible. In our building, as in most rental properties, public or private, you have to buy stand-alone gas heating units that clutter up the living space. Electrical outlets were more logically distributed and positioned. In our apartment they tend to be in the oddest, most inconvenient places. Also, the bathrooms and foyers (genkan) were more spacious, as were the hallways, which seem to be wider.

But as we continued our exploration, starting at the top and working our way down, a familar numbness set in. Regardless of all the new-fangled systems and the achievement of “high-rise elegance,” the developers hadn’t solved the basic problem that has always plagued Japanese apartments. Space was used effectively in that the function of every square centimeter was apparent. But that didn’t make it attractive or, in some cases, even livable. The rooms along the verandas were light and airy, with huge sliding door-windows, while the rooms in the interiors were dark and stuffy. There was plenty of storage space, a vast improvement over our own building, where closets are a premium, but it seemed almost as if some of the apartments were built around the storage spaces.

Many apartments on the lower floors were built in a split-level fashion: stairs going up to bedrooms that overlooked living rooms, but underneath these bedrooms were large storage areas that reminded me of the office space in “Being John Malkovich.” Since you couldn’t stand up in them, they were only good for keeping boxes and such. And there seemed to be an obsession with walk-in closets at the expense of actual living spaces.

Some units have lofts

Some units have lofts

The layouts tended toward a boxy style that afforded neither privacy within the apartment or a feeling of warmth, though they did give the impression of size. High ceilings are nice for Victorian homes, but seem sort of superfluous (and vertigo-inducing) when you’re living on the 38th floor.

As usual, the design seemed to have more to do with the developers’ (fit as many units as possible within a given space) and the architects’ (let’s look upon such liabilities as a challenge!) agenda than with the prospective tenants’ desire for comfort. Panoramic views, amenities, and the illusion of space (most of the units actually fall within the 50-70 sq. meter range, which is cramped for a couple with kids) were intended to make up for the fact that the space itself was not completely rational.

And it was disappointing to find that the usual cost-cutting ideas were still in force: the cheap veneer “flooring”; the plastic bathtubs; the lack of counter space in the kitchens.

But maybe we’re jaded. We’ve been to a lot of UR openings in the last decade and while every one is more modern and flashier than the previous one, we always come away with the same mixed feelings.

At one point we shared an elevator with two older women who were obviously quite impressed with what they had seen so far. “It’s so beautiful. It would be so nice to live here,” said one. “Yes,” her friend agreed, and then added, “it’s just too bad . . . ”

We asked them what was “too bad.”

“Oh, the price,” they said. “It’s just too expensive.” Well, too expensive for public housing.

East Core Hikifune’s open house continues until Sept. 20.

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