Morning briefing: Tax hikes to foot UK’s coronavirus bill?

Good morning.

A leaked Treasury document suggests Chancellor Rishi Sunak may need to hike income tax, freeze public pay or end the pension triple-lock to foot the bill for the coronavirus pandemic. The document, obtained by the Telegraph, predicts the UK’s budget deficit will reach £337bn in 2020 – the March Budget predicted a £55bn deficit. Tax rises and spending cuts that raise up to £30bn could be required to fund the increased debt, and may be announced within weeks, the document says. In the worst-case scenario, the deficit will reach £516bn this year, requiring £90bn in cuts and tax rises, while the Treasury’s most “optimistic” scenario forecasts a £209bn deficit.

The news comes as the government officially lifts lockdown measures for the first time. From today, people can exercise outdoors as much as they want and meet a friend in the park, while those that cannot work from home are encouraged to resume their commute, avoiding public transport when possible. Scientists at University College London have said 8 million people with underlying health issues should be exempt from the government’s back-to-work plans to avoid a deadly second spike of infections. In a new study published in the Lancet, they said people with conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart problems – about a fifth of the working population – should stay home.

One set of businesses allowed to reopen today are estate agents, a move designed to kickstart the stalled housing market. Removal firms and conveyancers can return to business, show homes can open and councils can restart construction in residential areas in staggered shifts. Anyone buying a house can now view properties again, creating a bizarre situation whereby people can visit a strangers’ home, but not see their family. It is estimated that 450,000 buyers and renters have moving plans on hold.

Global updates:

Mexico: Mexico recorded 353 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, the largest daily rise in the country by far. The number is nearly 100 more than its previous record, seen last week.

New Zealand: New Zealand will today move into a “level two” alert from level three, allowing retail stores, restaurants, cinemas and public spaces to reopen. Mass gatherings are limited to 100 people. Funerals were supposed to be restricted to 10 people, but the government has amended its rules so that 50 mourners can gather.

Singapore: Singapore will test all 323,00 migrant workers living in cramped dormitories for coronavirus, authorities have announced. Infection numbers have spiked among the workers, fuelling a second wave of infections in the country.

Brazil: The country has recorded its highest daily death toll to date, with 881 new deaths. Infection numbers have now passed 177,000.

China: The city of Wuhan will test all of its 11 million residents, local media has reported.

India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a $270bn economic stimulus package for workers and small businesses, worth about 10 per cent of national GDP.

Europe: An uneven economic recovery from the pandemic would be an “existential threat” to the European Union, the bloc’s economic commissioner has said.

Read more on the New Statesman:

The 2 per cent fall in UK GDP shows why radical economic policy is needed

Rishi Sunak has extended the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – but it can’t last forever

It’s achieving growth, not paying off the debt, that will be difficult after Covid-19

Covid-19 has exposed the limits of the politics of individualism

Why Poland’s “ghost election” sends a warning about its democracy


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.