Tokyo proves that housing shortages are a political choice

In the debate about how to solve the housing shortage in UK cities, foreign examples, especially in the rest of Europe and English-speaking countries like the US and Australia, often pop up to show what we can do better. But recently, some of the most exciting ideas in housing policy and planning reform have started to come out of Japan.

The Centre for Cities recently visited Tokyo, Sendai, and Onagawa Town through the Japan Local Government Centre on the Japan Study Tour to find out more about how cities function in one of the most urbanised countries on the planet – and what we can learn from them here in the UK. Here’s what we found.

Japanese homes are cheaper because they build more

Compared to skyrocketing housing costs in many Western cities, Japan has seen remarkable success in supplying affordable housing – even in cities with lots of economic growth. While average mean rents in London are upwards of £2,000, average rents in Tokyo are about £1,300 – even after Brexit-related depreciation of pound sterling.

This isn’t caused by social housing or danchi – less than 5 per cent of homes across Japan are socially rented, compared to about 17 per cent in England. And it’s not because Japan’s population is shrinking either – Tokyo’s population is still growing due to migrants from other parts of Japan and abroad.

Instead, it’s because the supply of housing in Japanese cities is responsive to local demand. While the UK saw about 194,000 houses start construction last year, Japan saw 942,000 housing starts last year.

Even though Japan demolishes and rebuilds lots of houses, the net increase in homes is still much larger than the UK – about 600,000 homes (Table 5) are added to Japan’s dwelling stock every year. Tokyo has added roughly 110,000 homes a year since 2003, compared to 20-40,000 a year in London over the same period.

These homes are often smaller than what we’re used to – the average property in Tokyo is 55 square metres, compared to 80 square metres in London. But this isn’t the full story. New supply in Tokyo responds to demand by building lots of smaller one-bed flats for singles, and young people can live independently without needing to share with housemates. This means that, even though average homes are smaller, the average Tokyoite probably has more housing floor-space per person today than the average Londoner because living with housemates is so uncommon.


Japan’s flexible zoning system is a different kind of planning

The planning framework that underpins this supply is a simple zoning system that allows by-right development, rather than one that relies on granting planning permission for each individual site. There are only 12 zones, defined according to the maximum nuisance level they allow, ranging from sleepy residential to polluting industrial uses. The key is that pretty much anything can be built, provided it does not exceed the zone’s nuisance level – so in areas zoned for high street usages it is possible to convert a hotel into housing and vice versa, but this is not possible in residential only zones.

This allows market supply to respond quickly as market demand changes and ensures development and density is driven by land values. If the demand to live in a city grows, older houses can be knocked down by landowners to provide more and better quality homes. In the case of apartment buildings, 80 per cent of the apartment owners need to agree to demolition and redevelopment. This is why Japan’s higher rate of demolition isn’t wasteful, as it enables an efficient supply of more and better quality housing.

Local taxes in Japan also encourage more homes

As a result, there is a clear difference in Japan between the value of land and the value of the property that sits on it. Like in other countries, the price of land in Japan reflects local economic strength and access to amenities and jobs. But unlike the UK, in Japan, the value of houses declines as they get older, because it so easy to supply new homes. Reflecting this, the property tax valuation of Japanese homes also declines over time, increasing the incentive for local government to build new homes to fund public services.

Japan shows how political choices cause Britain’s housing shortage

Of course, the planning system is not the only thing which is different. One factor is that the politics of housing are rather distinct – for instance, green belts around Tokyo in 1946 and 1956 failed because they were so unpopular with residents and local government.

But what Japan’s inexpensive homes and its alternative policy approach prove is that the housing shortage in British cities is not inevitable. Housing does not have to be expensive in prosperous cities. The housing shortage is something we have chosen to experience and can choose to change if we want to. If Tokyo managed to reform its green belt, twice, why can’t London or Cambridge?

We may not want to copy-paste everything about Japanese housing into UK policy. We may, for instance, choose a larger role for social housing, or slightly stronger heritage conservation. But for national and local policymakers trying to end the housing shortage, understanding Japan’s experience is essential if we want housing to be inexpensive for everyone.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.