Could zoning help the UK build its way out of a housing crisis?

More of this please. Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since 1979, some British governments have favoured more intervention in the economy, some less – but all of them have broadly supported both free markets and mass home ownership. The latest report from the Centre for Cities, then, makes a claim that might come as a surprise. It asserts that the British housing market, in its arbitrary approach to building permits and in the way it guarantees shortages, bears resemblance to the Soviet economies of the Eastern Bloc. 

The report, by analyst Anthony Breach, argues that Britain’s inability to build enough homes to meet demand results not from bad decisions by developers or councils, but from the entire institutional structure of the planning system. It calls for fundamental reform – turning away from the current discretionary approach, and instead embracing a form of zoning that's less restrictive than common models seen in the US. It also suggests reconsidering the green belt with a system that brings land into development based on population growth; and swapping the current system of developer contributions with a flat levy of 20% on all developments.

Breach’s paper draws on the work of Hungarian economist János Kornai, whose 1980 article "Economics of Shortage" argued that shortages in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule resulted not from human error but from systemic flaws. It notes two parallels between these economies and the UK housing market. One is the discretionary rationing of inputs. In both cases, you need to apply for a permit just to get started; in both cases, this can be arbitrarily refused. This introduces an element of uncertainty you can’t simply buy your way out of.

The second parallel is, Breach argues, the direct result of this: systemic and long-term shortages. Normal supply issues in market economies, like the undersupply of toilet paper that, upsettingly, hit British supermarkets in early 2020, are short term and quickly corrected (prices rise and supply increases). That isn't what's happening in the UK housing market.

Other oddities of the UK housing market – land-banking, slow construction rates, the poor quality and location of new homes – “all emerge from the planning system’s unpredictable rationing of new development”, Breach argues. “These institutional constraints force developers to undersupply new homes at high prices.”

The report proposes a number of ideas to address this, and remove uncertainty and rationing from the system. One is to end the green belt, which prevents development of land around many cities no matter how high demand gets, and instead bring land into development based on actual population growth.

Another is to scrap Section 106 agreements, under which developers contribute affordable housing or community facilities as part of their planning agreement. Such agreements were intended as a way for councils to recoup increases in land values (so-called planning gain) and pour it back into things that’ll benefit communities. But developers spend time and money on gaming the system and arguing their contributions down, which in turn creates uncertainty. The Centre for Cities’s report calls for this to end, in favour of a flat 20% levy on development value. 

The big one, though, is making it much clearer how to get planning permission. At present, every proposal has to pass council planning officers and committees of councillors, giving the public the opportunity to object to each development. One in ten permissions is refused, the report notes; “there is also an unknown number of applications which are never made, as firms suspect they will not succeed”.

To replace that, the report calls for the whole edifice to be knocked down and replaced with a simplified system of zoning. National governments would produce a “new flexible zoning code”, which councils would use when drawing up their local plans. The public would be consulted on those plans, but not on every individual development. Proposals which met the specifications laid out in the plans would then be granted permission automatically. Suddenly the system has more certainty.

Would this work? One quarrel, raised by several people in a Twitter thread in which Breach answered questions about his ideas, is that building our way out of housing crisis is a very long term solution. Maybe it’d help, eventually. But it does nothing to tackle homelessness or reduce the urgent need for subsidised housing in expensive cities – at least, not any time soon.

A second issue is that many of the most expensive cities in the world, like New York and San Francisco, already rely on zoning. Surely the Boston housing market doesn’t also look like the Eastern Bloc? Breach’s report acknowledges this (“their zoning codes are often highly restrictive, with each zone corresponding to a single possible use, or imposing tight limits on density”) and argues the new zones must be kept simple if they’re to work. Nonetheless, this does suggest that zoning is not a magic bullet.

But the biggest issue, as ever, remains politics: The planning system looks like it does in part because many people want it to. For all the social and economic damage it’s done, support for restrictions on development remains very high – NIMBYism among politicians reflects NIMBYism among the voters. What’s more, even if we could produce enough homes tomorrow, the British economy has been dependent on rising house prices for so long that it’s not clear what the effects of unwinding it would be.  

To some, communism sounded nice in theory, but turned out to be horrible in reality. The same may be true of planning reform.

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


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.