Google is lovingly creating a time-capsule of Britain’s homelessness crisis

Great work, everyone. Image: Google.

Images guide our historical memory. It’s not the Blitz we remember, but the picture of St Paul’s unharmed. It’s not 19th century Britain we recall, but photographs of stern-faced Victorians and impoverished street urchins. No one remembers the goals any more – but we can all picture Bobby Moore holding the World Cup in 1966. Forget history books, images tell the stories people really remember.

So what about us? What judgement will our grandchildren pass on our legacy, and which images will guide them?

Those of us living in Britain’s towns and cities see homelessness daily. We’ve watched with alarm at the spiraling numbers of rough sleepers slumped in doorways, outside tube stations and on park benches. The figures have almost lost their ability to shock. Since 2010, they record homelessness increasing over 169 per cent and rough sleeping by 98 per cent.

Our failure to tackle the issue will be remembered – because it’s being archived on a mass scale, entirely accidentally.

Today, everything leaves a digital trail. Data is hoovered up and monetised faster than you can say GDPR, and Google is the proud owner of the world’s largest mapping empire. Its network of image-capturing kit – mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles and even submarines – stitches together the world around us.

But as with all leaps in technology, it’s had some unforeseen consequences: unintentionally documenting the homelessness crisis with surprising intimacy.

The stirring images show Dickensian poverty colliding with our smart contemporary cities. EV charging points gleam next to torn sleeping bags. Tents are pitched on paving slabs alongside gutters of slushy snow. “Happy new year,” reads a cardboard sign held aloft by one rough sleeper as pedestrians walk by. Google has inadvertently created a time-capsule of homelessness, free and digitally accessible to all.

We now face a choice: let these images embarrass us, as future generations pass judgement on our inertia. Or seize on them as a call to action.


To end the homeless crisis we need to upturn our thinking. The Conservatives still believe that work sets us free – that employment prevents homelessness – but charities Crisis and Shelter argue this is false. One in three families are just one monthly pay check away from losing their homes, a study found this year. Shelter blame the Coalition’s housing benefit freeze from 2010 to 2015, despite the fact private rent, for a two-bedroom flat in London, have risen 34 per cent since 2011. As rents escalate and housing benefit remains frozen, Shelter argues working families are “hurtling towards homelessness”. It’s time we leave blaming working families for their poverty where it belongs, in the 1930s.

Last year’s harsh winter took the lives of 78 homeless people. This figure should make policymakers ashamed, but apparently doesn’t. The DWP’s botched rollout of Universal Credit is making things worse, accelerating foodbank use 13 per cent year-on-year and putting working families at risk. Amber Rudd, appointed Work and Pensions Secretary in November, is ploughing on with the policy regardless.

So what can be done? Labour’s approach centres housing. An extra 8,000 new homes are pledged for rough sleepers, alongside building 100,000 affordable homes a year to address the private rental crisis.

This plan is welcome, but incomplete. People are driven to sleep rough by a cocktail of factors, including structural and personal issues: unemployment, poverty, and lack of affordable housing; trauma, addiction, and the breakdown of relationships. Just as doctors must treat both cause and symptom of disease, we too need a multifaceted strategy.

Eradicating homelessness demands a ‘public health’ approach. We must go beyond the housing ministry to encompass the health, social care and employment authorities and mobilise them in the prevention of rough sleeping. It takes a village to raise a child, and it’ll take a whole government – not a single ministry – to end homelessness.

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity,” wrote Mahatma Ghandi. How do we want to be remembered? A cold concrete doorway is not a bed. Rough sleeping should be banished from 21st century cities, and a public health strategy is how to get there. Let’s eradicate homelessness, or Google’s images will haunt us in the eyes of posterity.

All images taken from Google Streetview.

 
 
 
 

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.