Valletta is this year’s European City of Culture. So what will a big award do to a small city?

Valletta, with some gratuitous teenagers in the foreground. Image: Getty.

Since it began in 1985, nearly 60 cities have been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture. In 2018, two will share the title: Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands, and the Maltese capital of Valletta.

The latter adds up to a big award for a small city in a small country. On any grounds, Valletta is tiny, with a population of less than 6,000. Malta itself is only 316km2, around 1/5th the size of London.

The small size and relative accessibility of Valletta means that the impact of City of Culture aware on the country as a whole may be more significant than Liverpool gaining the title was on, say, Bournemouth. There are those who were born in Valletta but have moved out, those who have always lived there, those who work there but live elsewhere, and those who just visit. All of them seem to be feeling the ripple effect of Valletta 2018. And with 95 per cent of the total operating expenditure for exercise – approximately €46m – coming from the public sector, it’s crucial that Valletta 2018 is good value for money.

The cultural and creative industries have already been identified as one of the potential growth industries within the Maltese economy. Employment in the sector increased by 10.2 per cent in just one year, from 2014 to 2015, when the first round of evaluation was undertaken by the organising body.

And Malta’s economy, like those of many developing European countries, is in flux, as it moves from an industrial and agricultural society to a service-based one. After the economic struggles of the last few years, growth in any industry is welcome.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens. Image: Getty.

Founded in 1565 by the Order of St John as a refuge for soldiers returning from the Crusades, Valletta is a city with history. It’s has been ruled by the Turks, occupied by the French, and ruled by the British. The city was deeply scarred by World War Two, and made its name as the country’s financial centre. Today, it’s a Unesco World Heritage, too.

But the city still needs to modernise, and being named Capital of Culture has acted as a catalyst. Preparations for the title have seen the regeneration and conservation of a number of Valletta’s forgotten architectural treasures including the regeneration of Strait Street, the covered market (is-Suq l-Antik tal-Belt) and the old civil abattoir (il-Biċċerija), where the Valletta Design Cluster will be established. The Manoel Theatre has recently undergone extensive renovation, and will host numerous music, dance and theatre shows.

Of course, there are concerns about both the gentrification and monumentalisation of the city. It’s always been a busy and working city, but as more money comes in, prices rise and traditional trades die out. Some locals worry that it could become a show town for tourists, rather than a culturally thriving city.

The programme aims to improve cultural participation in both Valletta and Malta for residents and visitors alike. According to Patricia Austin, Course Leader of MA Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins, speaking at the Valletta 2018 Living Cities, Liveable Spaces: Annual Conference, this is the only way that culture can truly thrive – when the narratives come from the people who live there. “Cities cannot have stories pasted onto them.”

But some residents believe that their side of the story is not being heard. As one, who did not wish to be named, says, the programme has come with a “hefty price”: “The gentrification of this city has resulted in a part exodus of residents who have been displaced by investors. The price of property is now prohibitive to most locals.

“The feeling that most residents have,” the resident added, “is that they have been pushed into a corner out of which they have to fight for survival – if they will survive at all.”


Being Capital of Culture shouldn’t be just about attracting visitors and tourists, but having an impact on the lives of the people who live there already. In the 2016 Valletta Participation survey, 70 per cent of respondents believed that local businesses would benefit, but only 16 per cent that residents would.

James Vella Clark of Valletta Residents Revival is concerned. “All this development has been taking place without a proper masterplan for Valletta and its residents,” he says. “It’s true that many places and buildings have been upgraded – but business interests have been given a carte blanche, and are being allowed to proliferate all areas of Valletta with little consideration for residents.”

The Maltese government argues that the programme will deliver huge benefits, of course. “The very diversity offered by the programme helps in promoting the Maltese islands as a destination that is able to tailor for all sorts of tastes,” says Michael Cutajar, a communications officer at Visit Malta, the country’s tourist board. Towns such as Sliema, Rabat, Zebbug and Ta Qali will also benefit from regional events, he says. “Indirectly, communities will benefit as there will be an increased amount of visitors around the year, residing in different parts of the island, as well as renovations and regenerations of fortifications, museums and old buildings.”

And most residents remain optimistic. The Valletta Participation Survey conducted by organisers found that 86 per cent of respondents believe that Valletta is changing for the better as a result of Capital of Culture, with 89 per cent of Valletta residents seeing it as an opportunity for Malta. The programme’s chairman Jason Micallef has proposed that Malta follow the model set by the United Kingdom and Lithuania by organising its own National Capital of Culture events every three years, until 2030 when Malta will next be entitled to bid for the title.

The real test will be how well that change lasts – whether Valletta 2018 will have a legacy of boosting the economy, fuelling cultural activity and engendering a feeling of pride in the citizens.

 
 
 
 

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.