We run housing policy for three European cities. Here's what governments must do next

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Alongside cities across the world, Barcelona, London and Paris are dealing with a devastating health crisis, affecting every aspect of our economy and society. The impact of Covid-19 is made all the more dangerous as it magnifies the pre-existing housing crisis.

In 2018 our cities rallied together at the United Nations to denounce the housing crisis affecting cities across the world. The Cities for Adequate Housing Declaration we all signed listed numerous factors that were putting at risk our goal of ensuring ‘equitable, inclusive, and just’ cities. These included a lack of national and state funding, market deregulation, the growing power of global corporations and increasing competition for scarce real estate. All these issues have been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some work has been done to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on our cities’ housing sectors. In France, Spain and the UK, national governments have banned evictions during the pandemic, and we have all made enormous efforts to provide temporary accommodations for the homeless, with more than 700 accommodated in Barcelona, 1500 in Paris, and 1400 in London. A variety of subsidy schemes are being set up to help households endure the first economic effects of the crisis. However, even if these measures have helped in the short term, much more needs to be done to protect households from the long-term impacts.

Tenant protection and financial support measures need to be strengthened to prevent displacement. The current crisis should not be a pretext to tip the scales in favor of speculative investment but an opportunity to construct a stronger safety net for tenants. We demand more legal powers to regulate the real estate market and increased welfare support in order to fight speculation and provide greater security of tenure for tenants.

The current halt on evictions has demonstrated what governments can do when they put people’s lives first. We ask all levels of government to work together on a plan to avoid a massive wave of evictions after the moratoriums come to an end. It is urgent that we find fair solutions for tenants and homeowners who have accrued rent and mortgage payment arrears as a direct result of the Covid-19 outbreak.

We also demand national governments provide more resources to strengthen the public and non-profit housing stock to ensure our economic recovery. Cities need to play an important role in the stable provision of affordable housing, both through new construction and the preservation and upgrading of the existing stock, as well as in the promotion of local economic development.

Emergency measures such as the temporary mobilisation of hotel rooms and housing for the homeless have shown that ending homelessnesss in our cities is possible. To make this change permanent we need properly funded public services and welfare systems that prevent homelessness and ensure nobody needs to sleep rough.

There is also an opportunity in the conversion of underutilised tourist accommodation into long-term affordable housing for our residents. We ask that the appropriate regulations and funding are put in place to make this happen.

Cities across the world are working together to share knowledge and find solutions to the housing emergency we all face. These issues were discussed at an online seminar on 22 May organised by the UCLG network of local governments. It’s clear that we need the involvement of all levels of government, from the European Union to our nation states, to address the specific needs and challenges we face. The current crisis is both an enormous challenge as well as an opportunity to work across the political spectrum, in partnership with civil society and the private sector, to guarantee the right to adequate housing for all. Local governments from around the world will continue to do everything they can to achieve it.

Ian Brossat is the Deputy Mayor for Housing at the Paris City Council in France. Lucía Martín is Housing Councilor at the Barcelona City Council in Spain. Tom Copley is the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development at the Greater London Authority in the UK.


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.