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Property

Japan's abandoned homes to undergo bigger effort for new lease on life

Government panel recommends scaling up land banks nationwide

Vacant property is a burden on parts of Japan beset by population decline, such as former coal boomtown Yubari in Hokkaido. 

TOKYO/KAMINOYAMA, Japan -- As abandoned homes and land multiply like mushrooms nationwide, Japanese policymakers seek to scale up a potential solution that has shown promise at the local level.

A government expert panel issued Monday a report recommending the use of land banks, which collect vacant or underused properties into pools that can be tapped for big redevelopment projects, such as widening roads.

Vacant homes in Japan more than doubled over the three decades to 2018, reaching 8.46 million, or 13.6% of total housing, shows a study from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

This problem has taken on greater urgency as society ages and more property falls into a limbo of unknown ownership.

Land banks are making headway against this challenge in a few northern Japanese communities. Kaminoyama, a city of 30,000 people 280 km north of Tokyo, has more than 300 vacant homes.

Hidetaka Watanabe, right, heads a local land bank in the northern Japanese city of Kaminoyama.

They can prove a stressful burden on owners, some of whom no longer live in the community, as with a man in his 60s named Keiichiro Anbiru.

"I'm at my wits' end," said Anbiru, who inherited his family home in Kaminoyama more than a decade ago but lives 50 km away in Sendai.

Pipes burst by winter cold left him facing costly repairs. "Contractors have refused to tear it down because the equipment can't fit into the property," Anbiru said. Even the city would not take his offer to donate the property, he lamented.

Enter the local nonprofit Kaminoyama Land Bank, which is leading plans to assemble vacant properties together for new uses. The effort draws on cooperation from the city government, a local builders' association and of course property owners.

Nobody's home: An abandoned house falls to pieces in the city of Tanabe, western Japan.

"Even if they are difficult to use on their own, [vacant homes] can have value when put together," said Hidetaka Watanabe, who heads the land bank. "There's the prospect of demand for stores and housing for young people," the local real estate executive said.

A land bank in Tsuruoka, another city in Yamagata Prefecture, has resolved more than 100 property-related problems. In one case, vacant homes were torn down to help widen a road.

"We've become a refuge for people struggling with properties they can't use," said Daichi Hirose, the body's chief.

The land ministry, which oversees the expert panel, will propose changes to existing land legislation as early as 2020 in an effort to reverse the abandonment problem.

Vacant properties diminish the value of surrounding real estate and worsen community safety, as well as form potential obstacles to disaster preparedness, experts say.

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