Vacant temporary housing worrisome

Immer mehr temporäre Wohneinheiten stehen leer, die verbleibenden Bewohner vereinsamen und sterben allein.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

More and more units for temporary housing of disaster victims have become vacant in Unosumai in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

4:00 am, March 09, 2015

By Yuichi Kobayashi and Shinsuke Yasuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersMORIOKA — More and more disaster victims are moving into permanent public apartments as the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaches, but the resulting rising vacancy rates in temporary housing units are a cause for concern.

Fears are growing that temporary housing communities will collapse, more people among remaining residents will die alone and security will worsen.

A temporary housing complex in Unosumai in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, has a total of 43 units in eight buildings, each with four to six units. However, only 24 of the units are occupied. The remaining 19 are unoccupied or contain only the belongings of former residents.

“I have to shovel snow and cut grass single-handedly in an area large enough for eight to 10 households,” complained Kiyomi Sawada, a 68-year-old resident who lives alone in one of the units.

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Rei Miura, another resident, 73, with a walking problem, said, “I have nobody to call for help in case of emergency.” Miura lives alone in a unit without any neighbors on either side.

Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which were affected by the March 11, 2011, disaster, have a total of 52,000 units of temporary housing for disaster victims. As of the end of January, however, their vacancy rate was 26 percent. The rate is expected to increase further with more residents moving to permanent residential facilities dubbed “restoration housing.”

For instance, about 30 percent of temporary housing units are vacant in Kamaishi city. City officials supporting the lives of disaster victims visit the facilities every day to keep an eye on senior residents. “A high vacancy rate poses a security problem,” an official of the city also said.

In spite of such efforts not only in Iwate Prefecture but also in the other two prefectures, a total of 44 residents died alone in housing units last year, according to police headquarters of the three prefectures.

Residents associations not viable

Due to the declining number of residents in temporary housing, it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain residents associations. In Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, 27 residents associations in temporary housing have been dissolved or become inactive. Since their leaders are often among the first residents to move out, management of the associations is becoming less and less viable.

For example, the residents association of Toyonema Daini Kasetsu Danchi, a temporary housing facility in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, is to dissolve at the end of March because its residents have decreased to 70 percent of the peak and nobody wants to lead the association. After the association is dissolved, daily group activities such as weaving will be held only once a month, and publication of the association’s newsletter, which announces events and offers daily life-related information, will be terminated.

Each resident will have to remove snow, cut weeds and deal with other problems such as frozen water taps by themselves.

Ayako Kon, 66, who has chaired the association since its inauguration, recently announced her intention to resign because she will start preparations to reconstruct her home.

“It’s sad to see dissolution of the association,” Kon said. “But moving out from temporary housing is proof of restoration.”

Consolidation difficult

Some local governments are trying to consolidate temporary housing facilities to deal with the vacancy problem.

The Iwate prefectural government last year asked municipalities along the Pacific coast that are running temporary housing units to draft plans to consolidate the facilities. As the temporary housing facilities are becoming older, the prefecture intends to renew only some of them that are expected to be used for a long time and consolidate residents of temporary housing in them.

However, only two cities in the prefecture — Kamaishi and Ofunato — have drafted consolidation plans.

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Kobe city government did not force consolidation of temporary housing facilities because it decided to respect opinions of the residents. However, the Ashiya city government started consolidating such facilities, with those built on school premises consolidated first.

In the case of the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake that struck in the middle of Niigata Prefecture, residents of temporary housing facilities, who had difficulty removing snow due to a decline in population, volunteered to consolidate facilities.

Private landowners force relocation issues

The prefectural governments of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima are experiencing difficulties in renewing contracts signed with the owners of private land on which temporary housing complexes were built in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

In some cases, disputes have arisen between the authorities and residents of such temporary housing over the need for them to vacate their provisional residences under post-quake reconstruction projects.

About 46 percent of temporary homes for quake-hit residents in the three prefectures were built on privately owned property. Of the temporary housing complexes built on private land, at least 261 will be subject to contract renewal by the end of the current fiscal year.

There likely will be an increase in the number of cases in which private landowners demand their properties be returned to them at the time the contracts expire, forcing the local governments to make difficult decisions in this respect, according to observers.

A 63-year-old landowner in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, for example, signed a contract with the municipal government just after the disaster to rent an 800-square-meter plot of land on high ground for two years. His house was destroyed by the tsunami, and his family of five has been living in separate temporary housing units.

“I’m wondering when we can live together,” the landowner said.

He agreed to extend the contract when it first expired in March 2013, but did not agree to another extension. The contract expires at the end of this month.

The Rikuzen-Takata municipal government has decided to close four of the temporary housing complexes the city runs — including the one that sits on the plot of land owned by the 63-year-old man — and asked residents in 68 units to move to other complexes.

Even some complexes built on plots of public land have faced closure.

The Yamada town government in Iwate Prefecture, for example, last year decided to remove seven buildings on its Yamada No. 4 temporary housing complex and asked 27 households to move to other buildings. The plot of land on which the complex sits was originally reserved as a site for building a sewage treatment facility, which would serve an area on high ground to which disaster victims will build their new houses.

In Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, meanwhile, a plan to close a temporary housing complex caused some trouble.

The city’s Medeshima Tobu temporary housing complex sits on a plot of land owned by a local organization. After receiving a request from the landowner to return the plot, the municipal government asked 98 households in May last year to move to other facilities. However, that only caused fierce rejections from residents, which then led the city to decide to buy the plot from the landowner for about ¥860 million.