Boris Johnson now has the majority to fix the housing crisis – if he wants to

Get to it. Image: Getty.

The shock hung Parliament at the 2017 General Election was attributed in large part to a Rentquake: private renters voted in greater numbers and favoured Labour.

This time around, a similar pattern is harder to detect. Looking at the 47 marginal seats with a large private renter population, Labour lost Leave-voting Ipswich and Peterborough, but increased their majorities in seats like Reading East and Portsmouth South.

Exactly how private renters voted on Thursday will take some further analysis. But in the two and a half years since the renters’ movement announced itself as a political force, the Conservatives, worried about alienating a fifth of the population, have made some efforts to neutralise housing as an electoral issue.

The party’s manifesto contained two policies that Generation Rent has been campaigning for: reform of the deposit protection system to passport tenants’ cash between tenancies, and the abolition of unfair Section 21 evictions. The latter policy, which was adopted by all parties, will give tenants more security in their homes and prevent homelessness.

But without limits on rent increases, as advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, unscrupulous landlords could still bully tenants who ask for repairs. When pressed on this in an interview, housing secretary Robert Jenrick rejected “old fashioned” rent controls and suggested mere “guidance” on rent increases would be considered as part of reforms.

The Tories also diverged from their opponents on building more social housing. They didn’t match the other parties’ commitments to 100,000 or more new social homes a year, only promising a “White Paper” to support their “continued supply”.

Instead, the focus of the housing elements of the party’s manifesto was home ownership. To help more people buy their own home, it has promised longer term mortgages and discounted starter homes. But if delivered – and not one of the 200,000 starter homes announced by David Cameron has been – these policies will only benefit those who can save in the first place. Two thirds of private renters have no savings at all – let alone enough for a 5 per cent deposit.

To really make a difference, the new government must invest in substantial numbers of new social homes. These would take the worst-off tenants out of the unaffordable private sector, in turn reducing demand in the wider market, bringing rents down for everyone. Only then would private renters enjoy more cash at the end of the month to put aside for the future – or put food on the table.

The size of the Conservatives’ victory presents Boris Johnson with two options: ignore the housing crisis and pay lip service to home ownership and house building; or use his political capital to do the right thing. Controversial but necessary decisions are needed on the green belt and property tax if we want a housing system that allows people to live near their work, and rewards them more for going to work than for owning property. These issues have been ducked by previous governments with shakier mandates and rebellious banckbenchers. But Johnson has more ability to ignore the party’s allies of landlords and take action – if he wants to.

Johnson’s speech on Friday morning suggested that we were getting more than just a traditional Conservative programme of government. He highlighted the trust that first-time Conservative voters placed in him and his party and the need not to let them down.

For many of these voters, they, their children and their grandchildren see no prospect of a stable home. Our polling shows that protection from eviction and rent control is popular, and with cross-party support, an effective package of tenancy reform would be a quick win for the new Parliament.

But democracy does not end at the ballot box and governments of any stripe must be held to their promises. Generation Rent will keep making renters’ voices heard, making the case for reform – and keeping the pressure on until we have a fair housing system.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent


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.