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Tuesday, Sep. 6, 2011

HOME TRUTHS

There are advantages to choosing UR property


By PHILIP BRASOR and MASAKO TSUBUKU

After the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, we decided to move out of our high-rise rental apartment. The fact that we lived on the 24th floor and didn't want to go through that swaying again may have been the main impetus, but another, more positive reason was that moving would be relatively easy.

News photo
UR best: Star House apartments of the massive Akabanedai UR complex in Kita Ward, Tokyo. PHILIP BRASOR AND MASAKO TSUBUKU PHOTOS

The building we lived in was administered by the semi-public national housing corporation UR (Urban Renaissance), so all we had to do was look through UR's vast database of available units and choose one that fitted our budget and preferences for size and location. Once we decided on an apartment, it was simply a matter of filling out the paperwork; no haggling with real estate agents, screenings by landlords or drumming up guarantors.

Some people call UR "public housing," which is misleading. In most countries, public housing refers to residences provided by the authorities for people with lower incomes. In Japan, such residences are administered at the local level. Not surprisingly, there is a long waiting list for low-income housing in Japan.

The rental units administered by UR are subsidized by the federal government. The original organization, the Japan Housing Corporation (Nihon Jutaku Kodan), was formed in 1955 to address the country's housing shortage, which was serious in economically burgeoning urban areas. During the privatization craze implemented by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06), it was combined with other government land schemes and semi-privatized. UR loses money every year, and there are forces in the government that want to make it fully private, but as with all Japanese entities that are bureaucratic in nature, it has resisted so far.

UR does have the air of a public housing concern, but rents are pegged to the market, and anyone can apply for apartments, which are still popularly referred to as kōdan (public housing). Another legacy of the postwar period is that UR in principle only rents to families, but in recent years it has offered more variations: units for single persons; units with office space; even units for "shares," meaning people not related to one another.

Japanese with a romantic idea of public housing, usually baby boomers who grew up in the ubiquitous, concrete danchi (literally, "group land") of the 1950s and '60s, complain that there's less of the storied Japanese social cohesion in newer kōdan. The occupants of older kōdan are older people who have lived there most of their lives, while occupants of newer kodan are people who expect to buy property someday and thus form no attachment to their buildings or their neighbors. It's every tenant for themselves.

UR doesn't require the supplemental fees that landlords normally demand. There is no reikin (gift money), and since rental agreements are open-ended, there is no kōshinryō (contract renewal fee). More significantly, UR does not require a co-signer to guarantee payment of rent in the case of delinquency, a standard term in private rental contracts. So, while rents for UR apartments are no lower than those for private apartments that are comparable in terms of location, size and age, in the long run they are cheaper. In addition, UR and its predecessors have always been at the vanguard of collective housing technology in Japan, which means quality tends to be better than that of private rental units of the same age and general price range.

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Moving on: Checking out the new, slightly upscale Chaleureux Ogikubo UR development in Suginami Ward, Tokyo.

For these reasons, many believe that there are long lists of people waiting to get into UR apartment buildings. When UR opens a new complex, tenants are selected by lottery; but, except for buildings in very popular locations, it's usually possible to get something, and there are always vacancies in older buildings.

Since UR rentals are not listed by commercial real estate agents, in order to look and apply for one of its apartments you must go directly to a UR office. There is a website that lists available units but UR isn't very good about updating it. At the UR office, you need to provide an agent with your preferred locations, size and price range. The agent then searches the UR database and prints out a list of available apartments that fit the criteria. These will include currently vacant units as well as apartments whose occupants have given notice that they will be moving out. The agent will then accompany you to vacant units to inspect them, and UR will even pay for the cab ride to properties when necessary.

Once you see a unit you like, you can place it on hold for up to two weeks. Commercial real estate agents often demand a deposit, sometimes non-refundable, to hold a property, but UR will do it for free, and it won't show the chosen unit for that two-week period. However, you can only keep one apartment on hold at a time. If you don't sign a contract in that time, the unit goes back on the market. In the meantime, you can still look around for other apartments without risking losing your initial choice.

Some people set their sights on a specific building or even a specific apartment or floor plan, but UR will not accept pre-reservations for occupied units. If you like a particular apartment that is currently occupied, the only thing you can do is call the office every week to check to see if it has become vacant.

When you make a decision on a unit, if you are a Japanese national, you must submit copies of your jūminhyō (residence certificate) and proof of income. UR's manual states that a potential tenant's monthly salary must be at least ¥300,000 for a family or couple and ¥250,000 for a single person, though it depends on the rental price of the unit. Foreigners, who don't have residence certificates, are required to submit their alien registration documents and show proof of regular employment — a document from an employer or, if the person is self-employed, a tax return.

Once approved, tenants are then required to pay the equivalent of three months' rent as a security deposit. It is stated in the contracts that the tenant must leave the property in the same condition it was in when he or she moved in, and that any damage will be assessed and the amount needed for repairs deducted from the deposit before it is refunded. In our experience, the deduction is usually small. We lived in our last UR apartment for 11 years and were only charged a few thousand yen, even though the wallpaper had been damaged in two rooms. Normal wear-and-tear is also considered the responsibility of the tenant. For example, when our toilet was leaking we were told we would have to find, and pay for, a plumber ourselves.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a great advantage of being in a UR apartment is that it is easy to relocate to another one. The only difficulty you may run into is if you are trading up to a much more expensive rental, in which case you will have to resubmit your financial information. Even in this case, it is mainly just a matter of making up the difference of a higher security deposit. If you are trading down, you get money back. Also, unlike most private rentals, UR payments are made toward the end of the month — which means if you move in on the first of the month, your initial rent payment won't be due until the 25th. And another good thing: You don't have to pay a realtor's fee.

For more information about public housing and detailed descriptions of specific UR housing complexes, check our blog at catforehead.wordpress.com.


Tips for dealing with UR offices

Bring a Japanese friend

According to UR by-laws, potential tenants must be able to read the contract, so if your Japanese-language ability is borderline you should bring a Japanese friend. Even if you're fairly fluent, it is often helpful to have a Japanese person with you since some of the details are a bit arcane and the paperwork can be intimidating.

Don't limit yourself

Even if you find a place you like in a preferred neighborhood and with an affordable rent, use the hold option to look at different areas and other size and price ranges. You may find something you like even better, in which case you can cancel your hold on the first property and put a hold on the second one; and then keep looking.

Be thorough

UR is a bureaucratic entity, and while the agents are helpful and courteous, they can also be rigid about the UR manual. It's common to miss a detail and then find out later your application has been held up for a technicality. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification.

Generalize

UR has neighborhood offices, but it's better to do the initial search at one of the main regional offices. In Tokyo, it's in Yaesu, near Tokyo Station. The main offices cover wider areas and have more resources. Local office staff usually concentrate on properties in their areas.




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