First-of-its-kind tax would bring in nearly one billion yen, but government says it’s not about the money.

Temples and shrines are the first things that spring to mind when most people think of Kyoto, and in some parts of the city it feels like there’s a beautiful structure of historical significance on almost every block. But something else Kyoto has a lot of is unoccupied houses.

According to the Kyoto municipal government, there are around 15,000 homes in the city with no regular resident, and it looks like their owners are going to have to start paying a special “empty home tax.” The tax doesn’t just target abandoned or completely unused detached houses, either, as people who own vacation homes in the city, including units in high-rise condominiums, will be required to pay the tax as well. The annual tax will be based on the value of the empty home and its specific location but is expected to be about half of the standard homeowner/property taxes, which must be paid in addition to the new empty home tax (i.e. owners of unoccupied homes would see their tax bill rise by about 50 percent).

In total, the government estimates that the empty home tax, under current conditions, would bring in nearly one billion yen (US$7.4 million) in tax revenue per year. However, city says its real goal isn’t to fill the city’s coffers, but to help with its housing crunch.

The official name of the “empty home tax” is the “unoccupied residence utilization promotion tax.” While Kyoto is most famous to non-residents as a symbol of traditional tranquility, it’s also a major modern city with schools and jobs that people need access to, and housing shortages are difficult to address in a town where so much land is protected from residential development for historical preservation purposes. The hope is that the tax will encourage people who own homes in Kyoto that they’re not regularly using to reconsider whether they really want to hang on to them, with the assumption that at least some will decide to sell the property off so that someone else can move in full-time.

The proposed tax, which would be the first of its kind in Japan, has reportedly met with approval from Japan’s Ministry for Internal Affairs and Communications, but won’t be going into place until the spring of 2026 at the earliest, so empty home owners still have some time to think over what they want to do. In addition, homes of historical merit, as well as homes below a certain value, will be exempt from the tax.

As one of the most popular travel destinations in the country, Kyoto no doubt has a particularly large number of privately owned vacation homes. Unoccupied homes as a whole, though, actually aren’t all that uncommon in Japan. Neighborhood homeowners’ associations aren’t as strict as they are in many other countries about keeping up a home’s outward appearance, vandalism rates are low, and the homeless community generally refrains from breaking into buildings for squatting, so you can leave a house sitting for years with no concerns beyond keeping some paperwork and property taxes up to date.

Because of that, it’s not shockingly unusual for someone to end up with an unoccupied home after, say, being the last in their family to move away the countryside to the big city, or to inherit one from an elderly relative. Ideas of “Maybe I’ll go back and fix it up someday” or “I should talk to somebody local about selling it” get put on the back burner, and the longer it’s been since anyone’s lived full-time in the house, the bigger those projects start to feel, until sometimes years have passed without anyone living in the home. So it’s likely that other cities in Japan will be keeping an eye ono Kyoto’s empty home tax, and possibly implementing their own in the future.

Source: Kyodo (1, 2)
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