Are the UK's cities equally unequal?

I obviously had to illustrate this with a 'mind the gap' shot and I don't know what else you were expecting. Image: Larry Johnson

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain's cities.

Inequality is the buzzword of our times. From students protesting the inequality of provision of puppies to cuddle to remedy essay stress between colleges to Ed Miliband (remember him) putting tackling inequality at the heart of the Labour mission, it’s become a burning political issue in the past few years in a way that hasn’t been the case since, oh I don’t know, the last Conservative government.

But there’s a notion, somehow, that the biggest cities are immune from this. Or at least in certain political rhetoric, the notion is that London is the dark star of the UK – miles richer than the rest of the country and full of smug university-educated young liberals who are not only deeply out of touch with the rest of the country, but also deeply out of touch of the experiences of those experiencing poverty and the day-to-day pressure of not going into the red.

It’s safe to say that this is resolutely not the case. Cities have always been places where human life exists in all its colours, cheek-by-jowl. Walking through London can take you from a white-stucco-fronted world of tiny dogs and high-fashion characters to a grim pastiche of bad 70s architecture and worse economic opportunities within minutes. And in smaller, historical cities, the charm and grandeur of the immediate surroundings of, say, the cathedral, can be in stark contrast to the drudgery of the city beyond the tourist photos.

London looking suitably evil and dark-star-ish. Image: Garry Knight

But are some cities more unequal than others? Measuring inequality isn’t an easy task – and there are a near-infinite number of ways you could decide to quantify it – but the Gini coefficient is a pretty common way of going about the task. When measuring economic inequality, the Gini coefficient takes the economic status of all the individuals within a certain group – a nation, or the residents of a city – and puts those figures tighter. The ‘coefficient’ – the resulting number – is a measures of how great the differences between all the figures are.

So if everybody has the same income or wealth, the Gini coefficient is zero – perfect equality – because there is no difference between all the individual figures. If one person has all the wealth or income, and all the others have none, the Gini coefficient will be very nearly one – complete inequality – though in practice it’s very unlikely to get a coefficient so high for a sizeable group.

Essentially, the long story short is that a lower number means people are more equal, whilst a higher number means higher inequality.

A quick glance at a map of the UK’s cities as shaded by their Gini coefficients shows that this looks like a typical north-south story.

Most of the darker green dots – indicating cities with higher inequality – are in the South East of England, with some spreading up through the Midlands and a particularly high inequality level in York.

Meanwhile, cities in the west and north of England, such as Exeter, Gloucester, Stoke, Wigan, and Liverpool, are yellow-coloured, showing lower inequality.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Cambridge and Oxford are the most unequal cities in the country, producing Gini coefficient scores of 0.46 and 0.45 respectively, meaning they’re about as unequal as Hungary (before taxes and transfers).

London, Reading, and Aldershot fill in the next three of the top five spots, all still scoring well above 0.4 on the Gini coefficient scale.

The national average is 0.42, and most of the cities we have data for actually sit below this benchmark.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Eleven cities at the bottom of the list are jointly the least unequal – Barnsley, Burnley, Gloucester, Hull, Mansfield, Newport, Stoke, Sunderland, Swansea, Wakefield, and Wigan – with a score of 0.38, making them roughly as unequal as Iceland, before taxes and transfers.

Which begs the question – why? And, just as importantly – should we be bothered?

From the many bits I’ve written using data from the Centre for Cities, this ranking – from most unequal to least unequal – seems to correspond roughly with the wealthier cities to the less well-off cities. That is to say that in a very general sense, richer British cities are more unequal, while poorer British cities are more equal.

Which brings in what is probably the oldest question in the political book – which matters more? Is it more important to raise the general wealth of the world, a country, or a city, even if that raises inequality – meaning some people are vastly wealthier than others – or is it better to have low inequality, even if that means the general wealth of the country or city is lower?

Who knew cities could be so controversial.  

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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.