London doesn't only need houses – we should protect its industrial land, too

Like this, but less pollution-y: Ford's Thames-side car plant in Dagenham, east London. Image: Lars Ploughmann/Wikimedia Commons.

The cost of housing is undoubtedly London’s most severe crisis – but putting the construction of new homes above all else risks making other crises worse. Cities are complicated places that need a range of jobs, as well as mundane goods and services to keep them ticking over. So we should be more wary of the rate at which the industrial sites providing these jobs, goods and services are being turned into flats.

This broader perspective was lost on outraged tweeters when I published my report raising alarm about the loss of industrial land in London. They accused me of standing in the way of new homes being built.

But why not build on parks and gardens? They take up more than half of London’s space, after all. The obvious answer is that they provide vital functions to Londoners and the many other species that inhabit the city. You can’t have homes without space for recreation, plants to cool the air in the summer, permeable spaces to stop rainfall causing floods, and so on.

I wrote my report because I think industrial sites can also provide some vital functions to London. I’m not opposed to all development on them, but I’m worried the mayor has been allowing too much to disappear based on faulty assumptions. Here are five reasons I think you should worry too.

1. They shelter a lot of viable businesses

In 1998 you’d find 14 per cent of industrial sites in London sitting empty, and the impression remains that these are wasted space supporting dying industries. This chart, which inspired my report, shows the mayor’s predictions for the extinction of many industries in London:

 

Source: GLA.

Predictions like these underpin the policy of supplying less and less land, handing it over to housing. But that policy can also cause the loss of these jobs.

In 2010, vacancy rates on London’s industrial land had dropped by half to 7 per cent – lower than most high streets. In Hackney Wick, a site I visited for my report, the vacancy rate is just 4 per cent. The remaining land is used by a range of viable businesses like a mid-scale brewery, a kitchen furniture manufacturer, catering firms, a scaffold yard and more.

But Hackney Wick has been designated for conversion to flats and a few artists’ workshops. So the land owners and developers have bought up the land, are giving shorter and less secure leases, and will eventually boot them out. Some businesses will move, some will fold.

2. We’re losing skilled manual jobs

It’s easy to think that London’s job market is booming, so why care if these businesses go?

The problem is that London, like the rest of the UK, has been experiencing something called “hollowing out of the middle”. This is where the middle-ranking jobs disappear, while new jobs are created at the bottom or the top of the scale – baristas and barristers, but not brewers, if you will. The problem is illustrated on this chart from a recent government report on the problem.

Source: BIS.

If the mayor’s predictions for industrial jobs come true, opportunities for skilled or semi-skilled manual work will disappear almost completely. The extra jobs in constructing homes on ex-industrial sites will fall a very, very long way short of making up the difference.

This crisis has been slowly unfolding for decades, and is one reason for the decline in social mobility and the rise in income inequality.

3. We need jobs to be spread across London

Unlike the media, banks and government, industrial jobs are spread all over London. We have the really large industrial areas in places like Park Royal in the north west and Belvedere in the south east.

At the other end of the scale, you can find small industrial sites peppered all over the city; my flat is on the edge of one in the north of Peckham. Here’s a selection of the bigger ones taken from OpenStreetMap:

This means that people can find work near to their home, which reduces the need to travel.

If everybody ends up working in central London, that would add to the strain on our transport infrastructure. It’s much cheaper to spread the jobs out, and unless we spend huge sums of money on tunnels there are physical constraints on the capacity of our road and rail network anyway.

4. We need some industries in London

Some people seem to think that all industry should move out of London. But the capital depends on many of them to function.

Economists outside the dismal mainstream have coined the label “foundational economy” for “the sector of the economy that provides goods and services taken for granted by all members of the population”. That’s the companies who service the City’s lifts, process and distribute their food, recycle their waste, and so on.

Here’s a sample out of the window of a business I visited in Charlton, including a paper recycling plant:

Location is often critical for these businesses. The lift repairers need to be close to the central London towers, while fresh food producers and distributors need to be close to their markets.

Industrial sites shelter these mundane but essential goods and services that keep everything ticking over. Planning policy locking in the industrial use keeps the value of the land down, keeping the businesses viable. How would we build homes without scaffold and builders yards?

Ironically, the ongoing conversion of these to homes has meant longer journeys for suppliers, which has been driving up the cost of building those homes.

5. It’s good for the environment to be in London

The extra costs for builders point to my final reason to keep some industry in London.

Forcing businesses to outer London and beyond will mean more traffic, and so more pollution and congestion on our roads. Many industrial sites around London have rail heads onto the rail network and wharves onto the Thames and its tributaries, keeping huge quantities of materials on trains and boats instead of putting them onto our roads.

Air pollution and climate change are two other crises facing London. It doesn’t make sense to tackle the housing crisis and, in the process, make it harder to reduce pollution harmful to our health and a stable climate.

So let’s build more homes, but as part of a coherent strategy for the city as a whole – a city that can function with good job opportunities and falling pollution.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a member of the Green party and of the London Assembly.

 
 
 
 

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.