Could the Sanctuary City Movement take off in the UK?

Rockville, Maryland debates becoming a sanctuary city in March 2017. Image: Getty.

Nowhere could an anti-immigration campaign seem to so utterly lack logic than in America. After all, the country’s white population are immigrants themselves, building a society through plunder and murder against the native American population. Since then, wave upon wave of migration has shaped American society. Indeed, the American dream has migration at its core. So what does it mean when a sizeable proportion of the American public rejects its fundamental national identity?

Meanwhile, the long history of migration to the UK is a footnote, or told in sketches by radical comedians. The recent wave of anti-immigration sentiment has been opportunistically exploited by politicians; culminating, as we all know, in the inflammatory rhetoric of the Leave.EU campaign.

The sanctuary cities movement aims to challenge the onslaught against immigrants and refugees, on both sides of the Atlantic. But how far can this movement resist a right-wing myopia that current beguiles the media and population alike?

The Sanctuary movement

In its modern form, the sanctuary cities movement originated in the States in the 1980s as a way of providing safe spaces for undocumented immigrants. But some, like Barbara Krauthamer, rightly point out that it has its roots in the US’ long and rich history of resistance to slave supporting states and federal laws by African American communities.

Following Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants, the Sanctuary City movement has come into its own. Four states, 39 cities and 364 counties in the US have signed a pledge to protect the undocumented by limiting cooperation with federal government’s anti-immigration practices. In response, Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding and prosecute city leaders in the federal courts. 

In other words, the sanctuary movement in the US is very much part of an attempt to create urban encampments of liberal resistance.


Sanctuary Cities in the UK?

Much immigration to the US comes from the landmass to its south – hence all the puff and blow about building a wall. The complicated relationship of state to federal law also permits forms of legal and governmental resistance.

In the UK, it’s a different picture. The City of Sanctuary movement has grown apace since it started in Sheffield in 2005, and now there are over 90 initiatives across the country. But its activities seem largely cultural and symbolic: as the cancelling of the Dubs Amendment showed, a racist government can hide behind the large moat that surrounds the UK, making it easier to circumvent mass population movements.

What’s more, cities have little power to resist a central government, whose executive powers have grown over the past century, regardless of the creation of the new raft of mayors. Short of individuals hiding immigrants in their homes, or in their car boots en route from France, it seems there is very little sanctuary cities, and towns can do.

What’s the point?

So what are they for? Largely, their purpose is to support those refugees that did make it through.

The City of Sanctuary movement has some key aimsbuilding bottom-up coalitions, which make a public commitment to welcome refugees, and to create cultural change by encouraging local people and refugees to form personal relationships.

The movement also aims to “offer a positive vision of hospitality” that “will also benefit other migrant groups, as well as host communities”. It’s a little vague, but it seems to be saying that an inclusive attitude benefits existing communities.

This idea of the benefits of inclusivity is echoed by Rosalind Scott, a councillor on Colchester Borough Council, who is attempting to win support to turn Colchester into a sanctuary town. She argues that, “We know that this will benefit everyone by encouraging and strengthening community.”

In other words, sanctuary cities are part and parcel of a social inclusion agenda, from Cantle to Casey, which recognises the damage to the social fabric that can occur when communities are fractured. But whereas those reports provoked debate, the sanctuary cities movement works below mainstream discourse, forming connections within communities.

But can we do more? Considering the success of the US sanctuary cities movement in identifying and reacting to the political fault lines of America, resistance in the UK could be a little bolder.

We have an openly anti-immigrant government, an opposition fraught with ambiguity about the EU and therefore dissipating our energies, and a gross attack on the ‘liberal bubble’ from spatially marginalised Brexiteers and their institutional backers.

But that liberal bubble is in fact urban culture. It represents creativity, learning and advanced culture, social tolerance and difference, and multiculturalism – values that have made the UK both tolerable, mobile and wealthy. It is our Library of Alexandria, and we need to defend it.

Much like the US, then, taking hold of the sanctuary cities idea and making it one of the core elements of the resistance could do much to assert a progressive and outward-looking culture’s right to exist.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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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.