“Ridiculously respectful” – in defence of TOWIE-town Brentwood

Brentwood High Street, during the 2009 redevelopment. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge wrote about his experiences growing up in and around Brentwood, now best known as the home of The Only Way is Essex. In response, someone pitched us the idea of a more positive article about the town – so here it is, as part of our ‘In Defence Of’ series.

In June 2016, I attended a wrestling show in Brentwood Theatre that bore little resemblance to the WWE broadcasts of my youth. The show’s promoter Dropkixx is based nearby, trains local wrestlers, and allows spectators to get backstage passes and meet the stars in informal fashion.  

All this felt a million miles away from the historically somewhat closeted nature of the professional wrestling industry, which had connotations of intrigue one might associate with the Freemasons or the Magic Circle. But just ahead of the Brexit vote, the event underlined the positive side of the UK’s growing wariness towards centralised authority: a strong and authentic sense of local community more evident than in the 2000s, when the Crap Towns series of books highlighted apparently terminal high street homogeneity.

When I first moved to Brentwood, to be fair, it was out of economic necessity and I perhaps craved some homogeneity as a bolthole. Yet after nearly five years, as an outsider that life here is not monolithic and homogenous at all.

Greggs might have two stores on the main drag  – but Percy Ingle bakers, familiar to many within the M25, is also here and offering London Cheesecake and challah. The abundant, even rural, green landscapes close to hand are enough to remind you that Brentwood may be populated by East End diaspora, but it’s a bit Milly-Molly-Mandy at the same time.

To this you could add suburban quirks, in the form of appealing terraced Victoriana and Edwardiana amid all the modern buildings; redux Baroque, in that of the early 1990s Roman Catholic cathedrall; timeless textbook history (the start of the Peasants Revolt); bizarre textbook history (Orwell’s correspondences with then Brentwood resident and future Joy Of Sex author Alex Comfort about pacifism); and stark physical history (the ruins of the St Thomas a Becket chapel close by the Sugar Hut).

Is this focus on history a form of escapism? I don’t think so, if the components of 21st century Brentwood are also engaging. The main characteristics I remember from the Brentwood School alumni I met at university – gregarious, proudly native, and civil – don’t seem specific to a particular time.

By way of example: in early 2016, I was shouted at by car passengers who were out-on-the-town, but in a ridiculously respectful way. To whit: “YEEAAAAHHHHHHHHH good evening my friend.” Sometimes I wonder if I’ve arrived in a parallel enclave where good manners and exuberance aren’t mutually exclusive.  I’m certainly not complaining.

Inevitably one cannot overly romanticise life here. Familiar problems abound: horribly expensive housing; the remarkably hideous Sainsbury’s Saturday logjam; the dearth of a proper cinema; social problems (I saw the emergency services out in force this week and it didn’t look pleasant); and being screwed if you are reliant on ponderous railway bus replacement services.  

Brentwood (top right) lies on the north eastern edge of Greater London. Image: Google.

This is the flipside of the patch of green belt separating Brentwood and Harold Wood stations, that signifies the transition between metropolitan landscape and something else. Brentwood feels slightly remote for a reason.

Even so, this is no social backwater. There are lots of diverse watering holes, from the outside floral environs at the Brewery Tap, to the debonaire and live-music-friendly Spread Eagle. And the popular venues serve a purpose. During the World Cup, the High Street was conspicuously buoyant after every England win, but that felt like a welcome relief in abject 2018.

Indeed, during the England v Croatia semi-final, in a particularly busy pub, I saw an acquaintance, one of the most tireless community volunteers I have ever met. He was the essence of serenity in a red Three Lions shirt, even whilst the adapted Atomic Kitten renditions around him, from a more multi-cultural crowd than one might have expected, reached new crescendos.

So yes, it is curiously heterogeneous. Maybe the TV programme title The Only Way Is Essex is too reductive: there’s more than one way of doing things in Essex in the first place.

There is a debate in the UK as to what defines ‘liveable’ – a place where you can afford to buy, or a place with a good quality of life. Finding both is a slog.

The first of these I have had to rule out: I doubt a government hamstrung by Brexit will help any time soon. On the second count, though, Brentwood still falls on the right side of adequate. I’m staying, for now.


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.