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.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.