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Public housing inquiries top 1,100 in Japan as pandemic leaves people homeless

This photo taken on May 8, 2020 shows public housing operated by the Saitama Prefectural Government, which a man in his 40s who has lost three jobs within the past 10 years moved into. Because he only recently moved into the home, hardly any of his belongings are there. (Mainichi/Mei Nammo)

Prefectural governments and major cities in Japan have received at least 1,106 inquiries from needy people affected by the spread of the novel coronavirus about temporarily entering public housing, the Mainichi Shimbun has found.

In many cases, people are seeking accommodation because the internet cafes where they were staying have complied with requests to close to prevent the spread of the virus

The finding, which comes about a month after Japan declared a national state of emergency, indicates the current situation is worse than after the global financial crisis sparked by the collapse of investment firm Lehman Brothers in 2008 -- the so-called "Lehman Shock."

The Mainichi Shimbun asked Japan's 47 prefectural governments and 20 major cities about the provision of housing to people who no longer had a place to stay for financial reasons, such as losing their job or suffering an income drop. It found that 44 local bodies had allowed people to stay in public housing or private housing they had arranged at low cost, with certain conditions such as limiting their stays to periods of around three months to a year. In 20 local bodies mainly in the Kanto region in eastern Japan and the Kansai region in western Japan, 659 households applied for such housing.

Based on the content of inquiries, it emerged that about 130 households were in strained circumstances, meeting such requirements as having suffered a certain decline in income, and would almost certainly be accepted into public housing if they applied.

There have also been cases of people relying on assistance from other municipalities and private organizations, so it is likely that the number of people who have lost a place to live is even higher.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been helping those in need via the social service "Tokyo Challenge Net," which helps so-called "net cafe refugees" and others who are in need find work and accommodation. Since April, a total of 405 people who were facing hardship due to the spread of the coronavirus or who had been forced out of internet cafes that complied with closure requests have been accepted into business hotels through the service. From mid-May they will move into public housing and other facilities.

The Saitama Prefectural Government has also accepted 59 households into public housing it operates, including 44 people who had been staying at internet cafes, for a limited period.

In the wake of the Lehman Shock, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism instructed prefectural governments in December 2008 to temporarily provide public housing to people who had run into financial difficulties and had lost their dwellings, as well as to those staying in internet cafes. By November 2009, a total of 2,655 dwellings had been supplied to people across the country. Similar notification was issued this year on April 7 when a state of emergency was declared over the coronavirus. A ministry representative commented, "Compared to the Lehman Shock, the novel coronavirus has had a wider effect, ranging from major companies to stores run by individuals, and it is feared there could be a stream of people losing their homes."

Meanwhile, there has been a surge in applications for housing benefits under a system where the national government or local bodies cover three months' worth of rent in principle for displaced workers and those whose businesses have been discontinued. From April 20, the government extended the coverage of this system to those whose incomes were reduced due to business suspensions accompanying the spread of the coronavirus. In the western Japan city of Osaka, around 600 applications were received in the 12 days between April 20 and May 1 -- more than six times the total number received in fiscal 2019. Many of the applications were related to the novel coronavirus.

Restricted to 20 major cities designated by government ordinance, including the city of Osaka, there have been at least 2,144 applications since April. This is more than half the number of payment decisions made across Japan in fiscal 2018, which totaled 4,172. Financial difficulties and other problems caused by the spread of the virus are believed to have pushed up the number of applications.

(Japanese original by Nanae Hayashida, Regional News Department, Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department, and Ryotaro Ikawa, Tokyo Bureau)

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