The fall and rise of the terraced house shows how far our attitudes to architecture can change

Terraced houses in Newport, South Wales. Image: Getty.

Couching its proposal in language reminiscent of urban policy and housing debates of the 1980s and 1990s, the UK government says it will spend £140m to kick start the demolition or refurbishment of nearly 100 estates and rehouse their displaced residents.

The idea that the design and physical environment of modernist housing estates has contributed to social problems and concentrations of criminality is a longstanding one. Announcing the initiative, the prime minister, David Cameron, said that three out of four rioters in the disturbances that swept through some English cities in 2011 “came from these post-war estates” and not from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings”. He argued:

Within these so-called sink estates, behind front doors, families build warm and welcoming homes. But step outside in the worst estates and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.s

This seems to mark a powerful return to mainstream political discourse of the notion of “environmental determinism” – the idea that physical environments shape individual behaviour and social and economic conditions. By bulldozing some of what are deemed to be the “worst” estates or improving others, the hope is that social phenomena such as drug use and gang culture can be tackled.

The initiative is to be led by Michael Heseltine, who in the 1980s drove a previous Conservative government’s response to social, environmental and economic issues in what Margaret Thatcher famously termed “those inner cities”. Their modernist tower blocks and terraced streets have certainly enjoyed changing political fortunes over the years. Yet while the tower block is once again firmly in the dock, the terraced house seems to be enjoying a reversal in its fortunes.

Cultural shifts

The terraced house was the vernacular domestic architectural form of English industrial towns and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Middlesborough. Built as a response to the rapid urban growth of the 19th century, each successive wave of comprehensive redevelopment in English cities has had to decide how to address the terraces. At different times they have been variously classified as slums, unfit for human habitation or no longer appropriate to current needs, and frequently demolished as a result.

Modernist environments often replaced these generally well-planned, solidly built, streets of terraces – and the dense functioning neighbourhoods they supported. But many of these failed almost as soon as they were completed, landing many local councils with repayment costs long after these new environments were demolished.

From the 1960s, a greater societal concern for heritage and the qualities of existing buildings and urban environments started to be reflected in new legislation and ways of planning. The shift to refurbishment, rather than the clearance of houses, in the 1970s reflected this.

However, by the 2000s, some policymakers were again starting to conceive of terraced housing as problematic. In particular its prevalence in some areas was seen as one cause of “low demand” or weakly functioning housing markets. The Labour government’s “Housing Market Renewal” programme, which ran from 2002-2011, assumed that some areas were unattractive to aspirational people because of a “monolithic” supply of pre-1919 terraced houses. This was despite the fact that in the same period in London and elsewhere such houses were highly sought after and rising in value. The programme may have funded more refurbishment than demolition overall, but more clearance of terraces was mooted and carried out than at any time since the 1970s.

The logic seemed to be “fix your housing market to help fix your economy” rather than the more conventional view – illustrated by the rise of property prices in economically buoyant cities at the time – that a growing urban economy will tend to lift property prices.

Many proposals for demolition faced tough opposition from those who didn’t wish to be rehoused, or didn’t share the view that their homes were somehow terminally deficient. Responding to some of the criticisms of the initiative, but also no doubt with an eye to reducing public spending, the programme was scrapped by the last coalition government.

Since then the terraced house has slowly but surely seen its star rise again. There was enthusiastic uptake and media coverage of the Homes for a Pound scheme in Liverpool and other similar schemes.

Granby Four Streets area in Liverpool. Image courtesy of Ronnie Hughes.

The 2015 Turner Prize was won by architects working with residents who had stood against demolition to refurbish the “Granby Four Streets” area, also in Liverpool, while the city’s council recently announced that it would no longer pursue demolition of most of the nearby Welsh Streets area but instead pursue refurbishment of a “significant proportion” of homes instead.

Perhaps the key lesson from previous episodes of urban housing renewal is that, before making sweeping generalisations about an area, it’s essential to understand and respect the complexities and nuances of real places and lives.

As the government embarks on its plans to transform what it rather dismissively brands “sink estates”, a nuanced approach that goes beyond simply “blaming buildings” for certain societal problems is crucial. A Policy Studies Institute report from 1991 reminds us to be wary of “simplistic solutions”, stressing that: “Most residential neighbourhoods are complex social entities, best understood by those who live there.”

Yet the residents of zones designated for urban renewal are often still presented as problematic, in need of management or control; or as victims of circumstances, in need of assistance; or being incapable of effecting change in their own lives or communities.

If renewal not removal of communities is the goal, then such positions run the risk of denying agency and influence to local residents and of repeating previous failures, rather than learning from what has contributed to success in the past. In particular, before assuming that any housing type contributes to or helps resolve certain societal issues, engaging well with those who actually live in it will always be essential.The Conversation

Olivier Sykes is a lecturer in European spatial planning at the University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 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.