Japan: In need to tighten regulations for fire-prevention equipment at facilities.

The fire that engulfed a residential facility for people on welfare in Sapporo last week, killing 11 residents and injuring three others, highlights the shortcomings in the system to secure housing for poor elderly people who don’t have relatives to turn to for financial help — like most of the victims in the late-night Jan. 31 fire. The tragedy underlines the need to tighten regulations for fire-prevention equipment at such facilities. But that alone will not lead to solving a larger issue — the difficulty many low-income senior citizens face in finding affordable housing. Tighter regulations may result in higher rents for the residents or cause financial difficulties to the operators of such facilities. The government needs to tackle the issue of ensuring that such people have adequate housing support.

The Sapporo facility, a partially wooden three-floor building that was about 50 years old, was run by a local company and provided temporary shelter for low-income people until they could find a job or a new residence. The occupants, who included some who required nursing care, were paying monthly rent of ¥36,000. Of the 11 killed in the fire, three were in their 80s, four in their 70s and three in their 60s. Each room, used by a single occupant, contained a kerosene heater and a smoke detector. But under the Fire Service Law, the facility was treated as an ordinary apartment house and its operator was not required to install sprinklers due to its size.

Housing units that are classified as social welfare facilities serving as rental residences for the elderly are required to be equipped with an automatic fire prevention system and guide lights. If a certain portion of the occupants of such a facility are unable to evacuate on their own in an emergency, they must be equipped with sprinklers. Since meals were being provided to some of the occupants at the Sapporo home, the municipal government plans to investigate whether it should have been classified as a residential rental home for the aged.

Its operator reportedly did not reply to past questionnaires from the city, apparently fearing that such a classification would have required it to improve its fire prevention equipment, which would have caused a large financial burden. The Sapporo facility’s staff worked at the house only during the daytime. If staff had been present in the evening, the large number of deaths in the fire might have been prevented. But that manpower cost would have weighed heavily on the operator, which used the modest rental fees to fund the facility.

The deadly fire is only the latest in a recent series of incidents that involved housing and other facilities that accommodate disadvantaged members of society. In February 2015, 11 people were killed in a fire at a lodging house in Kawasaki, where most of the occupants were on welfare. Last August, a wooden apartment house in Yokote, Akita Prefecture, which housed many people with mental disabilities, burned down, killing five residents. The fact that many of these facilities were old buildings containing clusters of narrow apartments is believed to have exacerbated the damage caused by the fires.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, more than 530 free or low-rent lodging facilities for low-income people are registered with municipalities across the country, with some 15,000 people living in them — 90 percent of them on welfare and roughly 40 percent of them age 65 or older. In addition, it is believed that there are at least 1,200 unregistered facilities nationwide providing shelter to more than 16,000 people. The Sapporo facility was among the latter group.

The government should be aware that these facilities, both registered and unregistered, serve as a social safety net for low-income elderly people who are unable to secure housing through real estate agents or cannot enter nursing care facilities for economic and other reasons. While they are essentially meant as temporary shelters, such lodging facilities become the final abode for many of their occupants. Many operators of these facilities don’t have the financial means to improve their fire prevention measures. Such an investment would likely be reflected in higher rents, making it more difficult for the low-income people to afford them.

The number of elderly people who receive no or little pension benefits is increasing. More than half of the households on welfare are composed of people 65 or older. The number of elderly people who will need to rely on such facilities is expected to grow. The government should consider how to secure affordable housing for such people — and to ensure the safety of the housing facilities. While tightening regulations on operators of housing facilities for poor senior citizens, the government also should consider what financial support it can provide to ensure the safety of residents.

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