This one chart suggests that Britain doesn’t have enough houses to go round

Please sir, can I have some more? Image: Getty.

For some time now, regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been publishing articles that could be parsed, basically, as, “Yes, Britain does need to build more houses, don’t be bloody silly”.

There was this article from November 2017, in which I asked if the housing crisis was a myth (spoilers: no). Then there was this, by the Centre for Cities’ economist Paul Swinney, in which he argues that, whatever you may have heard recently, supply definitely is one of the causes of the housing crisis.

Obviously, having been banging on about the need to build more bloody houses for several years now, I’m rather invested in this argument. But the reason I keep publishing this stuff is because of the recent appearance of commentators – most notably, Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics – who argue that there is actually no crisis of housing supply. The problem, Mulheirn argues, is one of excess cash pushing prices up. If and when interest rates rise to a more normal rate, then the cost of borrowing will become more expensive, and house prices will become affordable once again. (Rents, he argues, haven’t risen at all.)

I’ve never bought this argument. While interest rates are clearly a factor, it doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the rise in shared living, or the growth in the number of renters paying more than half their income in rent. So, while I don’t believe that building more housing will magically solve everything, I do believe, in the most expensive cities, like London and Oxford and Cambridge, it would help.

That said, Mulheirn is an economist, and I am not. He has a better grasp on the data than I do, and while I instinctively think he’s wrong, I lack the skills to prove it. So, human nature being what it is, I’ve developed a tendency to latch onto anything that suggests I’ve not been living a lie for the last five years.

And lo, it came to pass:

Click to expand.

This is from the Resolution Foundation’s latest report, A New Generationl Contract, which has won most headlines for its proposals to give every British citizen £10,000 at the age of 25.

In my quest to prove that I Am Not Wrong though, this is the chart I find most interesting. A couple of things about it grab me.

The UK doesn’t have many homes relative to its population. In fact, this seems to be a true across the English-speaking world: the US, Canada, Australia and Ireland are also all hovering around the 550 homes per 1,000 people mark, while most continental European countries have over 600, even over 700.

The UK housing market is inelastic. The three dots, representing the figures in three different years (1990, 2000 and 2015), are all fairly tightly clustered together. Again, this is true of all the English-speaking countries, except Ireland. Compare that to Japan, or Portugal, or Finland or Greece where the supply of homes relative to population has shot up over the same period.

We need to be careful here, as “increasing the supply of homes” isn’t the only way to get a higher number on this measure. Demographic decline – fewer people, in layman’s terms – of the sort seen in several European countries and Japan, but largely unknown in the Anglosphere, would have much the same effect. So would a boom of holiday home construction, of the sort seen in many Mediterranean countries and also, more bafflingly, Ireland. (That went well.)

Nonetheless: the result is that the UK has a smaller number of homes to go around than, say, France. In fact...

The UK position is getting worse. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of homes per thousand people in the UK actually increased - by sight, I’d say that’s a shift from around 555 to around 575.

But since then, it’s fallen back, to somewhere around 560 again. We know that the population has grown in that time. This graph suggests that housing supply has not grown to meet it.

Here’s what the Resolution Foundation report says about that chart:

While the measures outlined so far would improve life in the private rented sector and level the playing field for first-time buyers, building more homes is critical if we are to bring down the market cost of housing over the longer term. While some accounts have minimised the role that supply has played in exacerbating the housing challenges of young people, a rise in multi-family households suggests constrained supply. And when we look cross-nationally, as we do in Figure 9.5, we can see that the UK has a far lower housing-stock-to-population ratio than most comparable countries and has been far less successful at increasing that ratio in recent years.

Building homes at a faster rate than the adult population is growing is essential if supply and demand are to be rebalanced. The government’s target for England of getting 300,000 new homes built a year, significantly above the projected rate of population change, is a good place to start.

Or, to sum up: I was right, goddammit.

That said, CityMetric is a broad church. And all jokes aside, I am more interested in understanding this mess, so that we can fix it, than I am in being smug about my own righteousness. If anyone from the “No, we have plenty of houses actually” lobby wants to pitch a rebuttal, you know where I am.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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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.