I am part of the pro-housing resistance inside the Liberal Democrats

This is not even green belt: Paulton, Somerset. Image: Getty.

Last Monday the Lib Dems adopted a new housing policy. Unsurprisingly, the general public, national press and most of the party’s membership didn’t notice. It’s a pretty standard piece of Lib Demmery: a proposal for a new government investment bank, a reasonable sounding building target (300,000) and an extra tax on empty properties.

The party says a lot of good things about housing. At conference, comfortable baby-boomers wander through the exhibition hall talking about how it’s such a problem that millennials are unable to get onto the housing ladder. Every MP agrees that we really must start building more, and fringe events on urban planning have people crammed like sardines at the back and sitting two-abreast down the aisles.

But it’s all just a bit wet. If you took it upon yourself to ask where all these new houses might go, you’d struggle to find anyone with an adequate answer. Someone might offer up, “Well, obviously we should prioritise brownfield sites” and think that’s enough. Unfortunately, as much as we would all like it to be the case, you cannot will 4m new homes into existence by merely tinkering with the odd piece of regulation and asking that councils and developers learn how to get along better. Something drastic has to change.

It’s not as if the Lib Dems are without ideas. The youth wing of the Liberal Democrats is called the Young Liberals. As you would expect from a group of politically engaged under-26s, we’re all rather preoccupied over this whole housing thing and the fact that it is in crisis.

As we see it, the best solution is to end the urban containment policies which limit the size of cities — or, to phrase it in terms which would alarm the Campaign to Protect Rural England, to build on the greenbelt.

This is by no means the only housing-related cause worth supporting – but it is the best cause to push for, because it is one simple regulation which, if undone, could spur on mass house building without straining the public purse. It also means building homes near already existing infrastructure. And importantly, it undoes laws which keep the house prices of wealthy suburbanites appreciating while everyone else suffers.

Now the Liberal Democrats are professedly a radical party. Our septuagenarian party leader called himself a “free radical” in his memoirs. Our septuagenarian former party leader started offering a cash prize for “new, radical ideas”. Without fail, every policy debate has someone saying “this is exactly the sort of radical solution we should be supporting” (Bonus points if they also say “we as liberals”). So you would think that this youthful, radical solution would be exactly the sort of  thing the party-establishment are keen to support.

But alas, our every attempt to see this on the conference floor sees it watered down with caveats upon concessions upon compromises until we have something vague about how green spaces inside urban settlements are more important than those around them.

If the party were really serious about empowering us as young members, they would probably pay heed to the one thing we have been consistently campaigning for. But when it comes down to it, for all their talk of building a youth army  and supporting us as young Lib Dems, they find it a bit annoying whenever we ask for something other than another batch of leaflets to deliver. The quest for radical solutions to the country’s problems gets lost somewhere between begging for “more nuance” on every paper and our general debilitating (and appropriate) fear of populism. 

And I suspect that they’re afraid of seriously attacking the housing crisis head-on – because it might spook the asseted classes, and we’ll lose some support in a leafy commuter town somewhere. And how on earth would we stop Brexit, without our opposition voice on the South Bucks district council?

The writer is a member of the Young Liberals, the youth wing of the Liberal Democrats.


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.