- Education & Catastrophe
- I Don't Live In Tokyo But Affordable Housing Is What Makes The City So Lovable
I Don't Live In Tokyo But Affordable Housing Is What Makes The City So Lovable
Education & Catastrophe 71
Nakameguro during sakura season
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
In this issue, we discuss affordable housing in Tokyo. Covered in this issue:
How the world’s biggest city kept housing affordable
The link between affordable housing and human flourishing
Let’s dive in!
In the past half century, by investing in transit and allowing development, Tokyo has added more housing units than the total number of units in New York City.
It has remained affordable by becoming the world’s largest city. It has become the world’s largest city by remaining affordable.
Tokyo is one of my favourite cities (check out the Kid Friendly Tokyo piece I wrote a few weeks ago). I’ve been to Tokyo about 15 times now, probably more, and speak enough Japanese to get around, make restaurant reservations (very important) and communicate with the eighty-year-old izakaya マスター who speaks no English.
When I wander around the backstreets of Tomigaya (a leafy oasis 10 minute walk from bustling Shibuya), I always wonder (pardon the pun) how it is that Tokyo has so many tiny shops, restaurants and cafes sitting on prime real estate. I found my answer in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last week.
Fuglen in Tomigaya
I’ve always known rent is cheap in Tokyo, even accounting for the (tiny) size of the apartments. What I missed is the connection between affordable housing and the artists, artisans and ateliers that make Toyko such a charming city.
Those who want to live in Tokyo generally can afford to do so. There is little homelessness here. The city remains economically diverse, preserving broad access to urban amenities and opportunities.
And because rent consumes a smaller share of income, people have more money for other things — or they can get by on smaller salaries — which helps to preserve the city’s vibrant fabric of small restaurants, businesses and craft workshops.
Tokyoites open tiny gelato shops, wine stands, and vintage stores because they can afford the rent. According to the op-ed piece in The New York Times, two full-time workers earning Tokyo’s minimum wage can comfortably afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in six of the city’s 23 wards. By contrast, two people working minimum-wage jobs cannot afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in any of the 23 counties in the New York metropolitan area.
We consider ourselves as a city-shaping company. In Europe, for instance, railways companies simply connect cities through their terminals. That is a pretty normal way of operating in this industry, whereas what we do is completely different: We create cities.
While cities like Singapore and Vienna use public money to build affordable housing, there is little public or subsidised housing in Tokyo. Instead, the government makes it easy for developers to build. Zoning laws that shift decision-making to representatives of the entire population prevent existing residents of a neighbourhood from impeding developments that bring in new residents. Small apartment buildings can be built almost anywhere, and larger structures are allowed on a vast majority of urban land.
It may be a bit of a stretch to say that affordable housing leads to human flourishing, but people are more likely to take risks, pursue passion projects, and quit an unfulfilling job when rent is affordable.
Yoshinobu Yanase, a dapper man dressed in a tan vest and a bow tie, worked for more than a decade as a salesman for a fashion accessories company, dabbling in design and even persuading the company to make some of his products. Then, three years ago, he started selling his own line of leather backpacks, messenger bags and other leather goods from a room in a multi-floor retail building in Kuramae.
He sells only 30 to 40 items each month, but he pays only 90,000 yen per month for the store and 110,000 yen for a 600-square-foot one-bedroom apartment on the other side of the Sumida River. The combined rent is the equivalent of roughly $1,400 a month.
When I was in Tokyo earlier this year, a friend from Singapore brought me to her favourite natural wine bar in Tokyo. To call it a bar is being generous. It is a tiny wine stand helmed by the owner. He is one man sommelier-chef-server-cleaner. When I quipped to my friend that it’s so nice to be able to do what he does, she replied that he makes something like two thousand dollars a month.
But isn’t that what flourishing is about? It’s doing what you love, not watching how fast your bank account is growing.