Millions of dilapidated, empty homes isn't the first image to come to mind when most people think of Japan, but that's now the reality for large swaths of the country and the problem is only going to get worse. The country's population is shrinking and is forecast to keep doing so by a million people a year for decades, leaving huge numbers of unwanted homes in the countryside and in places like Yokosuka, once a booming commuter town about an hour from Tokyo, the New York Times reports. They can be bought for just a few thousand dollars each, but in most places buyers simply don't exist—and owners are hard to track down and usually reluctant to pay demolition costs when they can be found.
In Yokosuka and other places, efforts are being made to spruce up and sell the homes, but the numbers are staggering: Researchers say that in less than 20 years, some 21.5 million homes, a third of the nation's housing, could be empty, reports Bloomberg. Part of the problem is that many of the homes are made of wood and, since tax authorities consider such homes worthless after just 22 years, they weren't built to last. "Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits," real estate expert Tomohiko Makino tells the Times. The workers who once lived in these homes have died or retired, and "their kids are in modern high-rises in central Tokyo," Makino says. "To them, the family home is a burden, not an asset." (Japan no longer has the lowest birth rate in the world.)