Employers could provide a unique new source of housing supply. Here’s how

New homes in Bristol, 2015. Image: Getty.

In the general election, the voice of business was curiously absent. But following the result and amidst political uncertainty, the need for employers to make their voice heard and play a role in tackling the housing crisis will be crucial.

The case for recognising housing as a form of infrastructure, capable of contributing to economic growth, has been made by housing bodies and economists for years, and has gained particular salience as housing development reached historically low levels.

Since the market crash, continuing challenges in driving new supply upwards, changing tenancy patterns and increased cost of housing has encouraged organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to enter the debate, citing the housing crisis as a problem for business. In its report, the CBI pointed to the lack of affordable housing as hindering firms’ ability to recruit and retain staff, leading to long commutes impacting on workers’ productivity.

Business is right to voice its concern. The relationship between the cost of housing and incomes has been dysfunctional for years. This is evident from data showing the extent to which housing costs constitute a drag on incomes. A recent Resolution Foundation report shows that, when costs were included in a wider consideration of living standards, over half of households across the working age population have seen flat or falling incomes since 2002. The role of housing wealth, debt and costs needs to be much better understood by policy makers as we plan for the future.

But it also needs to inform employment and local economic policy. The availability of affordable housing is critical to employers’ access to talent, and to their competitiveness.

The 2017 white paper was an opportunity to provide renewed policy focus on the relationship between the housing and labour markets, between house prices and wages, and set a direction for greater involvement of employers in housing supply. The paper made references to the extortionate costs of housing and the 2.2m people with below average incomes who spend more than a third of their income on housing. It also recognised the importance of the proximity of a skilled workforce for growing businesses.

However, the solutions it offered to these problems are generic and linked to boosting supply overall, rather than focusing on practical actions to bring together employers, local authorities, planners and housebuilders. I would argue that employer partnerships have the potential to provide a unique new source of housing supply.

Early attempts to target affordable housing to particular profiles of workers were mainly government-led, but some employers also began work to secure affordable housing for their staff. NHS Keyworker first emerged in the early 2000s: by proactively using its land assets, it established partnerships with housing providers to develop affordable residential accommodation for its staff.

Since then, the model has developed in scale and popularity, with several housing associations in England developing sites in partnerships with NHS employers. Universities across the UK have also increasingly considered large-scale development of staff accommodation, using their own land, as an opportunity to attract global talent.

Scaling up this model throughout England and further afield is possible. But its growth is dependent on more employers being willing and able to invest land assets in housing, on making the model more flexible, and allowing employers to find new ways to use subsidy more effectively. It will require employers and government to think innovatively and there are a number of steps that could be taken to expand this form of provision.

First, options should be sought to attract other entrants to employer partnerships: for example, an NHS Trust could work in partnership with a local commercial employer, using land and other capital as subsidy. Second, planning policy could play a greater role in encouraging employer partnerships. If employer partnerships in health are considered a priority, plans should be made to contribute to local health needs.

Third, VAT exemptions on affordable housing schemes should be extended to key worker schemes delivered through employer partnerships. Fourth, models should be considered to attract other public sector employers to invest land or other forms of subsidy. Finally, local authorities are best placed to offer incentives to companies considering investment in their area.

The soaring cost of housing on employee incomes, and the scale of in-work poverty, presents an enormous challenge for government and for employers to recruit and retain talent. There are excellent lessons to learn from partnerships between NHS Trusts and housing associations, and in time, between other public sector employers with land to invest in housing.

A combination of vision, proactivity and smart use of land assets by employers, local government and housing associations give great cause for optimism. While there are benefits to be gained for all stakeholders, the ultimate prize is a productive and happy labour force, with decent living standards.

Grainia Long is the non-executive director of Thames Valley Housing.

This is a shortened version of an essay which will appear in the Lyons Edited Collection to be published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on Thursday 15 June.

The essays in the collection build on the work of the original Lyons Housing Commission in seeking to help the new government to orchestrate a bold and sustainable increase in the supply of new high quality homes of all tenures.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.