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This Tokyo Town Can't Give Away Houses

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4 days ago Miho Inada

a corner of a room: An empty home in Okutama, a century old and available for giveaway.

An empty home in Okutama, a century old and available for giveaway.
© Hiroshi Okamoto for The Wall Street Journal

A Tokyo town is giving away houses to draw residents, a sign of the challenges popular cities face: too few houses in some areas, too many in others.

TOKYO — Kazutaka Niijima is in charge of giving away houses in Tokyo. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

On a recent morning, Mr. Niijima visited one of his properties, a century-old wooden house on a hillside. As soon as he entered, he started vacuuming tiny dead bugs scattered on the tatami mats. A colleague picked up a broom to help.

Mr. Niijima works for the mountainous town of Okutama, which makes up one-tenth of the land area of Tokyo but has just 5,100 people, half as many as it did in the 1970s.

Getting there from central Tokyo takes at least two hours. It is the kind of place where wild boars poke around trash cans and schools send parents bear alerts on their phones. Aside from the town office and hospital plus a few tourist spots, jobs in the area are few.

Four years ago, Okutama had the idea of offering free houses to lure new residents—promising years of help on property taxes and then handing over the title. A few dozen people had donated homes to the town, typically heirs who had no use for a deceased parent’s old house and couldn’t sell them in a market where buyers prefer newly built homes.

So far, only seven families have taken up the offer and moved in. One family with a school-age son signed up for the old wooden house but backed out after deciding their son’s school was too far away.

“We’d like to find dwellers as soon as possible, but often people find what they actually see is different from what they imagined,” said Mr. Niijima.

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Developed nations around the world are dealing with two predicaments: too little housing and too much. While people crowd into cities such as San Francisco, London and Tokyo—often making it difficult for the middle class to find an affordable dwelling—places farther away suffer from a surfeit of unwanted houses.

Japan had 8.46 million dwellings vacant for at least a year as of 2018, a record 13.6% of the total housing stock. That compares with 12% in the U.S., which uses a broader definition including homes or apartments only briefly vacant. Nomura Research Institute expects Japan’s figure to rise to one in three by 2033 as the country’s population declines.

© The Wall Street Journal © The Wall Street Journal

A European census in 2011, the most recent conducted, found vacancy rates above 20% in countries such as Italy and Spain. While some were vacation homes, others were in fading communities like Okutama. A hilltop town in Sicily this year started offering unoccupied houses for one euro.

Okutama shows that even the lure of “free” often isn’t enough, and a home doesn’t have to be far from civilization to lose all its value. If Okutama were an hour closer to Tokyo, its houses could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. As it is, their value may be less than zero because of taxes and upkeep.

A decade ago, Naoko Gunji, 55 years old, and her husband inherited a four-bedroom Okutama house with a spacious parking lot from his father. They put it up for sale and got no takers, in part because it faces the main road and doesn’t have a countryside feel.

Ms. Gunji’s husband died last year, and now she wants to give the house to the town. “I don’t want to pass the burden of maintaining the house to my children,” she said.

Okutama owns about 20 houses. Mr. Niijima and his staff regularly weed the backyards and check whether animals have moved in.

At one 95-year-old empty house, accessible only by a narrow trail through thick grass, Mr. Niijima pointed proudly to the shiny lacquered wood of a closet door. He slid it open and found animal droppings inside. “Oh no, we’ve got to shut this tightly,” he said, frowning.

Behind the vacancies is an aging population, with half of the town’s residents 65 years old or over and far more deaths than births each year. Land policy exacerbates the empty-house problem. In Japan, heirs who tear down a house have to pay a higher tax rate on the land that remains—an incentive to leave eyesores standing.

Then there is the challenge of overcoming a preference in Japan for new houses. Used homes account for only 15% of housing transactions in Japan, compared with more than 80% in the U.S. Despite the abundance of empty homes, nearly one million new houses are built every year—often on the assumption they will be torn down in 40 years or so.

Until now, Okutama has limited its free-house offer to families with children and couples of childbearing age, but that is changing. Mr. Niijima said the town might let in older people without children for less-desirable properties and invite more foreigners, ideally those who speak Japanese.

The prospect was welcomed by vegetable farmer Michio Miyata.

“We can’t afford to huddle only among Japanese. I’ll be happy if they come. No people is no good,” said Mr. Miyata, 72. He pointed to the empty street in front of him, where, shortly afterward, a group of elderly people in black dress passed by to attend a funeral.

The free homes are attractive to big families—of which Japan has few these days. Toshiyuki Imabayashi, a 56-year-old care worker for the handicapped, and his Philippines-born wife, Rosalie, have six children, three of them still in preschool. They live with his 89-year-old mother.

Day care in central Tokyo was costly and hard to find, so they moved into a free four-bedroom house on an Okutama hillside with free day care nearby. Seventeen-year-old Natsumi rises at 4:30 each morning to reach her high school in central Tokyo, with no local option. “It’s OK. I sleep on the train,” she said.

The Imabayashis pay about $55 a month to cover half the property tax, and the town covers the rest. They can get title to the house plus a gift of $4,700 if they live there for 15 years.

It has been nearly six months. The children were excited to see fireflies for the first time, and Mr. Imabayashi said he is ready to stay for the rest of his life. But, he added, “I probably don’t want to own the house myself. Because once it’s mine, I need to pay the full tax.”

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Write to Miho Inada at miho.inada@wsj.com

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