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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Empty houses full of promise

Jul. 12, 2017

There is a huge problem of vacant houses in Japan. The country faces a declining population and there are more empty properties around the country than ever before. There are now 8.2 million vacant houses in Japan. That figure is expected to reach over 20 million by 2033—that would be more than 30% of the country’s total number of houses. Now communities are making a new effort to solve the problem.

Keiichi Kataoka has been worried about his vacant house in Kyoto for many years.

He has trouble managing and maintaining the property, which he inherited from his parents.

The house is located deep in an alley that gets little traffic.

It was built 90 years ago, and has been sitting vacant for more than a decade.

"I worry about the roof, about leaks. Empty homes need to be checked all the time," says Kataoka. "It gets very tiresome."

Kataoka asked Kohei Nishimura for help. Nishimura runs a construction and real estate business, and has rebuilt more than 400 vacant homes.

Nishimura focused his attention on one sales point: location. The house is only a 10-minute walk to the nearest business district.

After renting the property from Kataoka, he transformed it into a shared office space. It was completed last year.

The first floor offers a convenient desk-sharing space. Members can use one of the desks for a small fee.

On the second floor there are private offices that can be rented for around 240 dollars a month. The center already has more than 30 members. The house has been transformed into a profitable property.

"I couldn’t have come up with an idea like this," he says. "It looks really good. I'm happy."

Vacant housing is also a serious problem in Tokyo. Even one area in central Tokyo has a vacancy rate of 15.8% — higher than the national average.

After much discussion and thought, local people are trying out a new approach to the vacant-house problem.

After Yukiko Yamada lost her husband, she inherited the house his parents had owned.

It’s a 45-year-old wooden building, where the parents lived and sold fried pork cutlets.

For Yamada the property tax was a big burden. She kept trying to come up with ways to renovate the building so it could earn some revenue.

She first thought of turning it into a nursery, but it didn’t meet building requirements.

When she asked about turning it into a home for the elderly, she was told there wasn’t enough space.

She also considered dismantling the house and turning it into a parking lot for cars or bicycles.

"They said the entrance is too narrow for a car park, and a bicycle lot would barely cover the taxes," she recalls. "I was shocked."

Then, about two years ago, Yamada’s fortunes changed. The district hosted a “community development” event.

It was attended by architects who specialized in renovating old homes, and local volunteers wanting to do something for the local community. They brainstormed ideas for the vacant houses in the area.

When they discussed Yamada’s house, the group of volunteers had a surprising idea.

The suggestion was to make a cafe for local people and a lodging facility for foreign tourists.

This town still has the look and feel of an older Japan, and is a big draw for foreign tourists. They anticipate a steady profit. The volunteer group also wants to manage the facility.

The group consists of local people who work in interior design, architecture, and finance. They’ve formed a small organization called the Community Development Company.

The company kept Yamada informed about the specifics of the renovation and the management of the house.

"Yamada said she wants this space to be somewhere different generations can meet and have fun, improving the whole town," says Koichi Hikamiyama, from Community Development Company.

It’s been a year since they fixed the plan. The former cutlet shop on the first floor is now a cozy cafe.

The cafe also rents out sewing machines and holds knitting classes and other events. It’s now a place for local people of all ages to mingle.

And every day foreign guests stay on the second floor. Today brings a visitor from the United States.

He chose it after seeing its high ratings online.

A room costs around 90 dollars per night, and last year about 900 guests stayed.

This vacant house has been revived, through local people, ideas and money all coming together.

"There are so many promising ideas. I think my parents in law would be happy, too," says Yamada.

The Japanese government is also getting involved, creating a registration system for vacant properties. It is encouraging the elderly and low-income earners to rent the empty houses.

The system subsidizes the rent as well as the cost of earthquake-resistant renovations, to support the owners of the houses.

Last year, about 1 million new houses were built across the country, but there are still more than 8 million vacant houses. Japan must seriously look for new ways to bring its empty houses back to life.