Dealing with ageing pains: The rise and maintenance of the condominium in Japan

By Brian Webb
Brian is a Senior Lecturer in Spatial Planning at Cardiff University

Throughout our site visits in Japan we explored a range of high-rise neighbourhoods, including several condominium neighbourhoods. Compared to some of the public housing complexes we looked at, condominium developments differ in their private ownership structure where an individual owns their unit but also owns a portion of the shared interior and exterior spaces, such as common rooms, hallways, and private open spaces. Prior to the 1980s, most high-rise buildings in Japan were either office or commercial properties or large public housing complexes. Since the 1980s however there has been a residential condominium boom in Japan. This is particularly true in Tokyo where since 2000, 60% of all buildings over 60 metres have mostly been built as residential condominiums targeted towards middle- and high-income residents.

The multitude of high-rise development in Tokyo became clear in this model of the city

We visited one of the first of these condominium complexes, Sun City, built between 1977 and 1980 by Mitsui Fudosan – one of the largest real estate developers in Tokyo. The former campus of a research institute, the development occupies a 9.7 hectare site in the northwest corner of Tokyo. It is made up of 10 high-rise, and several low-rise, buildings composed of 1,872 units of 2-4 bedrooms, along with several retail units, a cultural centre, public pool, health clinics, clubs, green spaces, and a school. It is managed by one large management body but with representation from 11 different condominium committees. Mr Hatakeyama, the chairman of the association, and Mr Kamiya, the vice-chairman kindly showed us around and explained some of the successes of the complex as well as difficulties it is facing.

Green park spaces extend throughout Sun City

What is immediately evident when entering the development is the expansive and well-maintained green space. This is a defining feature that we were told continues to prove to be a key selling point for potential buyers and is one of the reasons for the very low vacancy rate. The seamlessly connected greenspace is particularly popular with parents who have children as it allows access to the school without having to cross any streets. Unlike many recent condominiums in Tokyo, when Sun City was built a contract was signed between the developer and the municipality to keep the space open for public use for those living in the surrounding community in exchange for allowing the developer to build higher than originally permitted. The award-winning green space is maintained by the residents themselves and therefore they avoid having to pay higher maintenance fees that would typically be paid to a landscaping company for it’s up-keep. They also foster a sense of community and pride.

Finding ways to keep the maintenance fees low is proving challenging, as the key source of income for the condominium complex is on the decline. In 1999 a new parking garage was built on the site and it currently subsidises’ about half of the maintenance fee that residents have to pay for the up-keep of the wider complex. But as driving becomes less popular in Tokyo, residents and those from the surrounding neighbourhood that make use of the parking, are turning instead to the convenient subway station located just across the street. As a result, parking spot vacancies are rising, with 300-400 spots now vacant. This has resulted in declining income for the condominium association.

On site workshops provide spaces for community engagement

The threat of rising maintenance fees also comes as the population of Sun City ages, and with it more retirees on fixed incomes. The condominium complex previously had 6,000 residents but as children have grown up and left and older single persons occupancy rates increased, this has now dropped to 4,500 residents. To maintain a sense of community, the condominium association arranges lots of activities for residents, including pottery classes, festivals, and parades by the children, as well as 19 different club activities. These activities help to develop a shared understanding of what it is to live together in a condominium as a shared living space. This is supplemented with a twice-yearly community magazine and a practical rulebook for residents annotated with hundreds of small cartoons that depict day to day do’s and don’ts in the complex.

While the condominium association has done a fantastic job managing the built environment and creating a lovely sense of place, they are still struggling with the ageing population and constantly working to adjust practices to meet this challenge. There are now four health clinics on the property to meet increasing demand. But there is also a rise in dementia amongst the residents which has led to mounting pressure on the property management company’s resources to assist them. This has been identified as a key long-term problem that needs to be addressed.

Sun City is well placed to manage these financial demands in part due to the strict rules around condominium management in Japan. While in Tokyo Dr. Taro Hirai arranged for us to meet with the Condominium Management Companies Association where they explained the various rules and regulations designed to ensure the long-term viability of condominiums in Japan. Particularly important is the requirement for a detailed, fully funded, 30-year maintenance plan for all buildings. This includes an automatic renewal of the core features of the property approximately every 15-20 years. Separate dedicated funds are allocated to the daily maintenance and management of the property as well as reserve funds for maintenance and management. The long-term time horizon of the maintenance plan means that monthly maintenance fees to residents are set at appropriate levels from the start of the process and new purchasers are aware of exactly what needs to be done, when, and how much it will cost now and in the future prior to purchasing.

Detailed maintenance plans form a key strategy to manage ageing condominiums

A major renewal was just about to start over at another condominium development we visited, River City 21. This project was one of the first urban brownfield redevelopments in Tokyo 30 years ago. Comprising a set of buildings at 54, 40, and 31 stories the development was also one of the first to include supertall condominium buildings in Japan. Along with the condominiums it also includes two rental towers at 14 and 40 stories. Built for higher-income residents, this development is about to undertake a long-planned renewal of its exterior facade. While funding has been allocated and the property has been extremely well-maintained, this will be one of the first supertall building facades in Japan to be extensively repaired. This has led to concern among the property management company and residents about the potential risks involved due to a lack of construction experience with supertall residential cladding and therefore difficulties in projecting the overall cost.

River City 21

In both Sun City and River City 21, the condominium associations and property management companies have sought to develop a sense of community to help facilitate dialogue between residents and management. As the populations in both developments continue to age, difficult issues of income generation, changing amenity needs, and resident care will require compromise. Similarly, as the buildings age the long-term maintenance of the built environment will need constant attention and consensus among residents about what needs to be done and when. What we discovered in visiting these developments is that residents seem to have a strong sense of what it is to live in a condominium. This emphasis on community over individual ownership comes through strongly and positions the developments well to collectively manage their future challenges.