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120,000-plus households received housing support in Japan amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Central Government Building No. 5 that houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 14, 2015. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- At least 125,874 households in Japan received housing support over the nine months up to December 2020 as the prolonged coronavirus pandemic took a heavy toll on people's livelihoods, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.

    The households received assistance ranging from benefits for securing housing and the temporary provision of public housing, to rent reductions and exemptions. In 15 of the local governments covered by the survey, the number of allowance payments shot up to a level more than 40 times that of the previous fiscal year. Among them were Oita and Shimane prefectures in western Japan, indicating that not only urban areas but also local regions have been suffering from the pandemic's impact.

    The Mainichi Shimbun queried the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 47 prefectural governments and 20 ordinance-designated cities about the status of their housing-related assistance implemented between April 2020 -- when Japan's first state of emergency over the coronavirus was called -- and December that year. As a large number of people have lost jobs or seen a decline in income due to the economic downturn triggered by the spread of COVID-19 infections, local authorities have been providing housing support to affected residents.

    The pillar of such assistance is benefits for securing housing, in which the national and local governments shoulder a certain portion of rent. Payments of such benefits were approved in 119,265 cases during the period, according to preliminary figures -- some 30 times the 3,972 cases recorded in fiscal 2019.

    Meanwhile, 5,412 households living in public housing were granted rent reductions or exemptions, or payment deferral, among other assistance. Another 611 households temporarily moved into publicly run housing. In addition, A total of 586 households were allowed to live temporarily in privately rented housing -- a measure implemented by some local governments.

    Among local bodies where the number of such cases can be compared against fiscal 2019, the city of Osaka saw the figure rise 113 times to 6,547 cases, while in Kyoto, the number climbed 74 times to 2,883 cases.

    In 2020, the number of applications filed for benefits for securing housing peaked in May and June, and approval of those applications peaked between May and July. However, even in December, 25 local bodies including Hokkaido, Tokyo and the city of Fukuoka saw a higher number of housing benefit payments in that month alone than during the whole of fiscal 2019. Overall, there were 4,351 cases where such payments were approved across the country in December.

    The spike in the number of payments is also partly attributable to the health ministry's inclusion of people who lost income due to business closures and other circumstances amid the spread of the virus as being eligible for the aid. In 17 localities that were aware of the backgrounds of the applications, more than 60% of the applications were filed due to business closures and other such reasons.

    Housing benefits were established in Japan in the wake of the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, in accordance with a law to support the self-reliance of those in need. While beneficiaries do not need to move into new housing, the period of assistance was fixed at three months in principle, with the maximum period set at nine months. For households that began receiving the benefits in April last year, the expiration date was the end of December, but the support period was extended to a maximum of one year shortly before the aid was due to expire. Even though extensions have been granted, the allowance is not designed for long-term use.

    "If the benefits expire, there could be a steep rise in the number of applicants who want to move into public housing," said a representative of the Tochigi Prefectural Government.

    (Japanese original by Nanae Hayashida, Kenji Noro and Takashi Kokaji, Regional News Department)

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