Almshouses are coming back into fashion – and this is not a good sign

Almshouses in Cavendish, Suffolk, c1950. Image: Getty.

At first glance, almshouses are an anachronism, often dainty, charming cottages placed nonchalantly among the bustle of modern cities. The vast majority are registered charities that provide accommodation to older adults at discounted rates, but some also provide free accommodation with additional services, allowances and gifts.

Almshouses are a historic institution, having existed in England and Wales since the 10th century, but are now experiencing what the Times has described as a “boom”. Other newspapers have proposed almshouses as “the solution to ageing Britain”. They highlight that over the last two years, 712 new almshouses have either been built, bought, or are currently under construction. Today, 1,600 almshouse charities support over 35,000 residents.

An article in The Guardian reported almshouses as providing a proven model for both social policy and effective philanthropy. Counterintuitively, almshouses are presented as a modern progressive solution; a radical approach to tackling issues of social isolation and the marginalisation of an ageing society. The article calls on housing developers to provide “almshouse-style” accommodation in new developments.

The almshouse resurgence is filling a gap in provision but it’s worth considering why such a gap exists. The need for almshouses are, after all, the symptom of a bigger problem. One reason for their establishment in the middle ages was a lack of alternative welfare provision; they prevented poor older people from falling into vagrancy. Almshouses, as many charities are, are products of necessity and the consequence of inequality.

Charities are not solutions to problems: they are red flags that something is systemically wrong.

Illustration of Rochford Almshouses in Essex, 1787. Image: The British Library.

Red flags

The ONS estimates that the proportion of people aged over 85 in the UK is expected to double over the next 25 years, putting enormous strain on health and social care systems.

Coupled with this, income and health inequalities are becoming more acute, while services and support for older people, often poorly funded by the public purse, have faced significant financial constraints. Inequalities tend to compound over time, the effects of cumulative disadvantage over the life course taking their toll in terms of health, housing and mortality. As a result, inequality is rife in later life.

In the UK, the top 20 per cent of people aged between 66 and 85 have a household income of double the bottom 20 per cent. At the very bottom of society, many older people are falling through the safety net of state provision. Federated charities such as AgeUK, and philanthropic networks such as the Community Foundation, are able to provide research, funding and support on a national scale but are subject to significant pressures.

The almshouse resurgence is filling a gap in provision. But while this is commendable, it’s not clear if they are the answer. Almshouses have offered respite out of necessity for ten centuries: they are less of a panacea and more symbolic of a lack of attention to vulnerability in older people.

Selective protocol

Almshouses were originally established by local landowners or clergy to provide respite for ageing churchmen. Admittance later expanded to embrace pious individuals who shared the faith, or other beliefs of the philanthropist, or who happened to live on the estate, in the parish, of a benevolent philanthropist.

Today, they still bear the marks of these origins, with trustees obliged to fulfil the wishes of the benefactor, no matter how incompatible with modern Britain. The eligibility criteria for entry to almshouses are often laid out in the deed of trust of each individual almshouse as stipulated in will of the benefactor. Although over time many of these requirements have been reformed by trustees, some still skirt on the edge of discrimination.

A document connected with the foundation of Henry VII’s almshouses at Westminster. Image: National Archives UK.

Trustees make the decisions regarding who can or cannot not obtain access to reduced rents. Crucially, these decisions are not always based on need. They may be based of variety of other factors, such as the religious persuasions of applicants, whether they reside in particular parishes or areas, or even whether they are of “good character”. Until the late 1970s, for example, the Worshipful Company of Weavers Almshouses provided accommodation solely for widows of Freemen of the Weavers. Such old-fashioned requirements are becoming increasingly rare, as trustees use their discretion when filtering applications. But almshouses still reserve the right to be selective; the state does not.

The reason for the longevity of many almshouses is intimately tied to their financial models. Often relying on ancient endowments, almshouses are subject to strict financial schemes which have been highly resilient to economic change. In many cases the objective was to ensure the wishes of the benefactor were carried out in perpetuity. Such endowments are incredible assets that the overwhelming majority of charities are, sadly, unable to rely on.

A 2018 CityMetric article alluded to the problem that this historic model of funding creates. Until recently, almshouses were often established on the basis of conditional philanthropy to the deserving poor. This is an idea that is quite simply incompatible with modern Britain – even with the best of intentions, boards of trustees, who often suffer from a lack of diversity, are not best placed to make such universally important decisions.


The future

In the absence of large scale benefactions, the kind of which took place hundreds of years ago, new financial models need to develop.

Unlike France and Canada, the UK has no dedicated resource to support the development of the social innovations that are required to meet the challenges of later life. But there is a great deal of potential for shared cooperative finance, such as that being developed by the coop InvestAge (which one of the authors co-founded) to fund innovative and socially connected housing. InvestAge wants to see a world where people can live with greater autonomy in later life. After all, creating a better old age for all is in everybody’s best interest.

The burgeoning number of almshouses are a broader reflection of the state’s failure to look after some of the most elderly and vulnerable people in society. Innovative new solutions are urgently needed.

The Conversation

Michael Price, Senior Research Fellow, University of Leeds and Victor Harlow, PhD Candidate in Education History, Newcastle University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 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.