In both India and South Africa, affordable housing was life-changing for the poor – sort of

A 2007 housing protest in Cape Town, South Africa. Image: Getty.

South Africa is known around the world for its significant housing programme, and India has made substantial efforts to develop its cities. Providing free or affordable housing brings obvious benefits to residents who have lived in desperately poor conditions with no water, electricity or sanitation, in precarious informal structures.

But research in these two contexts has found that the new housing has brought unanticipated difficulties for poor urban residents – and women in particular – alongside the gains. Moving into new housing can put women at greater risk from domestic violence, compromise their privacy and jeopardise opportunities to earn an income.

Both South Africa and India have a patchy record of providing affordable housing to the poor, as well as a chequered history of unequal access to land and housing for women compared with men. In South Africa, Apartheid laws meant black women were not entitled to own land or housing until 1994.

In the post-Apartheid era, the government has worked hard to redress these inequities. A national housing programme, introduced in 1994, aimed to provide “free” housing to any eligible poor South African (though residents still have to pay for rates and services). Often these are located on the edges of cities where land is cheaper.

Affordable housing in South Africa, 2014. Image: Paula Meth/author provided.

To date, more than 4m housing opportunities have been created, and 56 per cent of this housing has gone to women, rising to 70 per cent in some areas – a crucial step for advancing gender equality.

In India, a person’s caste, class, religion and gender directly shapes their access to land and housing. This is particularly acute for poor women. For cultural reasons, many women do not own property, nor do they commonly benefit from joint ownership. They often do not inherit property.

A national programme implemented in 2005 to improve urban areas has aimed to provide infrastructure and basic services for the poor. In some contexts, former slum housing has been upgraded with formal brick or concrete built houses or flats. Elsewhere, the poor have been relocated to new housing, often on the edges of cities.

The Indian policy was not specifically designed with gendered issues in mind: instead, new houses were built for “the married unit”. But in parts of India, allocation has been through women-run community organisations, which has enhanced consideration of women’s needs.

A life-changing move

In both countries, the changes in living conditions are remarkable, from very poor quality construction to solidly built flats or houses. Research shows that for many recipients of housing, the improvements in quality of life are significant. They can enhance a person’s sense of self-worth, and offer protection from rain, sun, animals and flooding. They can extend privacy through separated internal rooms. Houses are often cleaner and healthier. Having doors, locks, walls and roofs enhance security, and the buildings commonly have electricity, running water and sanitation.

Images of informal and formal housing in India, 2014. Image: Paula Meth/author provided.

But improvements in housing also present real problems, for women especially. Thicker walls and greater privacy mean women are less able to call out for help, since sound travels less easily. New ways of living are more private and separate, and this makes neighbours less inclined to intervene in domestic matters. In India and South Africa, where sexual and domestic violence levels are so high, this is a real problem.

The South African housing provision privileges those with dependants, often women. Providing women with legal ownership of new housing has caused unease among unmarried, single or separated men. They feel their positions of authority are undermined, and they worry about not benefiting from the housing programme.

What’s more, politicians and state employees including social workers and police agree that if a dispute over property arises, the needs of women and children should dominate. Men’s anxiety can result in heightened episodes of violence against women and children. For some households, acquiring a “proper” house leads to the household fracturing. These tensions are common in contexts of poverty: new assets generate hostility because resources are so scarce.

A loss of privacy

In India, costs of building mean some new homes have only one bedroom. Large extended families are compelled to share these modest spaces because of wider housing shortages. In effect, this can mean sleeping arrangements are more cramped than in former slum houses, which often contained multiple poor quality sleeping spaces.

In the new houses, grandparents and teenage children share rooms, and adult couples have little to no privacy. This loss of privacy impacted the women I spoke to, as part of our research: they lamented their inability to conduct normal adult relations and reported their husbands seeking lovers elsewhere. The shortage and type of housing produces new tensions between husband and wife.

New housing often reduces residents’ abilities to earn an income from or at their home. This impacts women especially, whose livelihoods can depend on work they can do from the home, such as selling food or small items. A change to apartment blocks reduces the potential for retailing to passing customers, and new rules or norms associated with formal housing can prevent informal economic activities occurring.

What’s more, smaller structures can limit opportunities for renting out spare rooms to tenants. And when the poor are moved out to housing on the edge of the city (common in both countries) it creates significant new constraints for travelling to work and for services. Women report new vulnerabilities associated with a lack of safe transport, lack of street lighting and long travel times.

Giving the urban poor access to formal housing can undeniably change their lives for the better. But the unanticipated challenges faced by women living in new housing in South Africa and India show how vital it is for such programmes to consider the impacts of this move on every member of society.

The Conversation

Paula Meth, Reader, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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.