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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Lawmakers' posh digs on cheap criticized

Subsidized opulence flies in face of vows to correct income disparities

Staff writer

Starting April 1, House of Representatives members will be able to take up residence in three-bedroom luxury apartments in a new, 28-story complex in the upscale Akasaka district in the heart of Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from the Diet.

News photo
Starting April 1, Diet members will be able to move into this subsidized apartment complex nearing completion in Tokyo's upscale Akasaka district. KYODO PHOTO

And the best part is the rent -- just 92,000 yen per month.

The Akasaka complex is "a palace" and lawmakers will live like royalty, Democratic Party of Japan Diet member Takashi Kawamura said.

The housing "is basically a high-class hotel. There was even supposed to be a gym and a sky lounge, but they were scrapped" due to public criticism.

The government-subsidized housing complexes in the heart of Tokyo for civil servants and Diet lawmakers, with their cheap rents, have drawn recent public criticism in the wake of the "love nest" scandal late last year involving Tax Commission chief Masaaki Honma, an Osaka-based economics professor who reportedly kept a lover in one such Tokyo apartment.

Ironically, Honma had advocated that the government sell off property assets, especially those that are subsidized, that sit on high-value plots.

After he stepped down in disgrace, lawmakers have been shying away from moving into the Akasaka complex for fear of upsetting voters.

Originally built in 1963, the Akasaka complex for Lower House members underwent a complete makeover starting in 2004. The building, to be completed in February, boasts 300 82-sq.-meter units. The total cost was 33.4 billion yen, all of which came from the government budget.

However, Kawamura estimates the actual value to be about 50 billion yen, or 160 million yen per unit, by adding the land price to the construction cost, based on the assumption that it would be sold on the market, not offered for rent. The plot belongs to the Lower House.

"So the lawmakers who are trying to convince the public that they are striving to correct the disparity (between rich and poor) will actually be moving into a symbol of that disparity," Kawamura said. "What is that all about?"

At present, there are no laws on Diet members' housing. The Lower House Steering Committee last June strengthened regulations by laying out rules to limit the apartments to lawmakers from outside Tokyo's 23 wards and their families.

The committee in 1984 decided rent prices should be 5 percent more than that of bureaucrat housing, a rule that has continued, said a spokesman for the Lower House.

In addition to the Akasaka high-rise, which is still under construction, there are three complexes for Lower House lawmakers, in the Takanawa, Aoyama and Kudanshita districts. All are on prime commercial property.

Following the completion of the 300-unit Akasaka complex, the apartment blocks in Aoyama and Takanawa will be demolished in June. The land, now owned by the Lower House, will be handed over to the Finance Ministry as government property.

Despite criticism that rent at the Akasaka complex is too low, the 92,000 yen is higher than other such housing -- prices elsewhere range from just 13,000 yen to 60,000 yen, according to media reports.

Living in the new Akasaka apartment "is the ultimate moral hazard," Kawamura said. Lawmakers "should be ashamed for being able to live in these 160 million yen apartments for one-10th the (market) price thanks to what little money taxpayers make, while chanting (the need) to correct (income) disparities." Typical monthly rent for a similar unit in the private sector costs some 1 million yen.

During a recent news conference, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa stated his intention to rent a unit in the new Akasaka complex.

"The price was decided in the Lower House Steering Committee with thorough discussions involving lawmakers, including opposition party members," Nakagawa said. "I believe the price was set in accordance with the rules."

But Nakagawa added there is room for mid- to long-term debate over the issue, including the possibility of establishing a law on Diet members' housing.

It is up to each Diet member to decide whether to rent an apartment in the Akasaka complex, Nakagawa said. "This is not a residence, it is a lodging for (lawmakers to be able to do their) job -- to deliberate (on bills) in the Diet."

Under severe public scrutiny, however, Lower House members have begun to consider options other than Akasaka opulence, including Kawamura.

Kawamura, who had been living in the Aoyama complex, decided to move out and rent an apartment in a quiet neighborhood in Bunkyo Ward.

The two-bedroom unit is a mere 25 sq. meters and the monthly rent is 75,000 yen. No sleek black car for Kawamura either, who will be commuting to the Diet by subway.

"The Diet (affects) the lives of the general public, and it is only natural that (lawmakers) live just like others do," he said. "I have done the most natural thing -- I have thrown away my special rights and will now live like the rest of the public."

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