Survey finds deceased Japanese residents’ belongings left abandoned in 1,093 public housing units

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – The number of public housing units in which single residents died and their possessions left undisposed of has reached 1,093 nationwide, highlighting a difficulty facing local governments, according to a survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun. 

The units were found in 87 local governments as of November 2018, or nearly 70 per cent of the 130 covered by the survey.

Amid the greying of society, half of the residents in public housing are age 65 or older. Under such circumstances, many local governments are calling for the central government to establish rules for disposing of such belongings. In response, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry intends to carry out research to assess the actual situation.

The nationwide questionnaire survey was conducted on prefectural governments, ordinance-designated major cities, prefectural capital cities and core cities with populations of 200,000 or more, including Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, which will be designated as a core city in April.

The survey inquired about the current situation of public housing operated by the local governments, all of whom responded to the survey.

In Osaka Prefecture, possessions of the deceased remained in 177 units — the highest number among the local governments surveyed. Among the 1,093, belongings were left untouched for a year or longer in over 60 per cent, with 21 of those units remaining in such condition for over 10 years.

The longest period for belongings remaining undisposed of was 18 years, which was found in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.

“We have obtained consent from the heir of the deceased regarding disposition of the belongings, so we plan to carry it out in time for the building’s renovation,” said an official of the Kawagoe city government.

The Civil Code stipulates that ownership rights of belongings left by the deceased are transferred to their heirs, such as a spouse or child.

In principle, disposition of the belongings requires consent from all heirs. For this reason, local governments have to search for the heirs and make a request that they collect the belongings.

However, in a number of cases, the local government finds itself unable to locate an heir at the address listed on the family register. And even if they eventually find the heir, some refuse to collect belongings because they became estranged from the deceased.

As a result, 58 local governments have suspended accepting new tenant applications for 706 public housing units, affecting over 60 per cent of the units with undisposed belongings.

The remaining 400 or so units were excluded from the list of available places by the relevant local governments for such reasons as there were no applicants.

In January 2017, the ministry notified local governments that they would be able to relocate the deceased’s belongings even if the heirs remain unknown. Following this, some local governments in such greater metropolitan areas as Tokyo and Osaka Prefecture have collected such belongings and stored them in vacant rooms and other places.

In the survey, 113 local governments called for legislation or the establishment of policies that would let them dispose of belongings without the consent of the heirs.

According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the number of elderly single households in the nation is estimated to reach 8.96 million in 2040, 1.43 times the figure in 2015.

Yasuyuki Sato, a Tokyo-based lawyer specialised in public housing issues, said, “Disposition of the deceased’s belongings without the consent of an heir could be regarded as an infringement of ownership rights, leaving it difficult [for local governments] to deal with the situation.”

He added, “It is necessary to examine a framework that allows disposition of belongings if there are no indications by heirs that they will collect them.”