Maps show new class divisions at work in US cities

Washington DC. Image: Richard Florida/Martin Prosperity Institute.

In the 1920s and 30s, scholars at the Chicago School of urbanism came up with a standard model, in which the city was a series of concentric circles. At its centre, they placed factories and employment centres; these were surrounded by working class housing. Then came the middle classes, and finally, at the city’s edges, those with the highest incomes.

Anyone who’s visited the US recently can tell you this model no longer holds (there’s a real scarcity of factories in Times Square these days). But a study released by the Martin Prosperity Institute in September goes further: now, it argues, this model has now been completely inverted.

A team of researchers, including urbanist Richard Florida and cartographer Zara Matheson, used 2010 census and survey data to map the class breakdown of 12 major US cities. Unlike the Chicago School team, however, they didn’t classify people by wealth, but by three classes of employment: the confusingly named “creative class”, which includes professional jobs like lawyers or doctors; the “service class”; and the “working class”, meaning manufacturing or factory workers.

The study found that the creatives increasingly dominate the centre of most cities; where there’s a waterfront, they also cluster there. Meanwhile, those with service jobs tend to live further out. True working class neighbourhoods are now a relative rarity.

The economic centre of New York, for example, is Manhattan. The island is now almost exclusively occupied by the creative and professional class, except for a few service-dominated areas in Harlem or on the Lower East Side. The outer boroughs are dominated by the service class, while only a handful of areas in Queens and the Bronx are even 50 per cent working class these days:

The study doesn’t include comparative historical maps, but just about every film ever set in New York tells you that this wasn’t always true. In the 20th century, Manhattan was dominated by recent migrants living in tenements. This “creative class” concentration is a recent phenomenon, a result of the city’s shift away from an industrial economy.

Other post-industrial metros like Boston show a similar pattern, though there are a few service workers still living in the south-central part of the city:

The outer edges of Houston are still dotted with petrochemical and aerospace factories. Consequently, the city still has a few working class neighbourhoods on its outskirts:

Is any of this a problem? The study concludes that it has identified “clear and unmistakeable patterns of class division”, which doesn’t sound great. But the Chicago School model suggests that this has probably always been the case.

What has changed is where people want to live, given the choice. With the disappearance of heavy industry and the accompanying noise and pollution, city centres are now more attractive to wealthier residents. And, as industry moves elsewhere, the number of blue-collar jobs in cities is falling.

It might be those brown and beige clumps representing the service class, almost always slightly outside the economic centre, which we should be worrying about. The study identifies what it calls “areas of urban disadvantage”: suburbs populated by those who may well work in service jobs in the city centre, but can only afford to live at its fringes. An income map of New York effectively mirrors the job-based map above:

In other words, the Martin Prosperity Institute maps are about income after all. As richer people move in, property prices go up – and it gets harder and harder for those who aren’t wealthy to live near city centre.

First three maps: Richard Florida/Martin Prosperity Institute; final map: US Census.


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.