“Different cities are different”: so how does the housing crisis look in different city regions?

Well, it's a start. Image: Getty.

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

One of the big problems in urban policy making is working out how well things are going already.

Normally the easiest way to measure your performance is to compare it to that of your peers. With cities, though, that’s easier said than done: for reasons I’ve explained at tedious length before, there are so many different ways of defining a city, and things are done so differently in different jurisdictions, that just getting to a point where you can reasonable compare two sets of figures is a massive job.

In Britain we compound this problem by fiddling around with local authority boundaries every 20 minutes or so.

At first glance, the six new city regions, which elected their first metro mayors last week, look pretty familiar: a lot like mostly metropolitan counties so venerable that they date all the way back to 1974.

Actually, though, only three of them (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) actually match those boundaries. The other three are very slightly different. The Liverpool City Region is Merseyside plus Halton; Tees Valley is Cleveland plus Darlington; West of England is Avon minus North Somerset.

That’s not hugely different – we’re still talking about the same sort of place. But it is different enough to make finding comparative figures on these places a pain in the bum.

Lucky, then, that those heroes at the Centre for Cities have ridden to the rescue yet again. The new city regions differ from the “primary urban areas” that the Centre normally uses in its datatools. But to get round that, they’ve put together new “data dashboards” looking at some of the data on each of the new city regions.

Over the next few weeks we’re going to trawl through those to build up a picture of the new city regions. But to give you a flavour, I thought I’d compare some of the data on an issue very close to my heart.

Each of the images below show two charts about a city region’s housing market. The top one is the housing affordability ratio – that is, the relationship between the average house price and the average salary. The latter is the growth in the region’s housing stock (with 2001 figures as a baseline). On each graph, the green  line is the city region and the grey one the national average.

Here’s the West Midlands:

Since 2006, housing affordability has improved very slightly, even though the region has increased its housing stock more slowly than the national average. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction: the number of dwe;lings tells us about the area’s supply of housing, but without figures for change in the local population we don’t know anything about demand.

Here’s the same figures for Greater Manchester:

There, the affordability ratio is quite a lot lower than the national average. The rate of house building has recently been a little sluggish, however.

Next door in the Liverpool City Region...

...there are two striking things going on in these graphs. One is that housing affordability has fallen, quite significantly, from 6.9 times average earnings in 2006 to 6.1 a decade later. The other is that the city region’s housing stock has grown incredibly slowly: climbing by just 8 per cent in 16 years

One more for luck: here’s Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

This one’s complicated by the fact it’s at least two different cities, plus an assortment of small towns and rural areas: it isn’t a single economic region, and so not a single housing market, in the way the first three were. So while Cambridge has some of the least affordable housing in Britain, much of the rest of the region doesn’t fit that pattern.

That perhaps explains how it is that housing in Cambridgeshire is in fact slightly more affordable than the national average – and how it is that a city one associates with a housing crisis could exist in a city-region where the housing stock has grown quite so rapidly.

I’m going to stop there because this is quite confusing enough as it is. But two conclusions jump out at me.

 One is that – this is upsetting to me – you can build more homes and still see affordability deteriorate. Whether that’s because demand is growing (more people, or at least more households; the two are not quite the same thing) or because of other, financial factors is not something we can determine from this data. But nonetheless: there’s no simple correlation between more homes and more affordable housing.

The other conclusion from this data is that the different city regions are, well, different. The policies that are needed to improve the housing market in one nay not work so well with another.

Which seems to me like a very good argument for the sort of devolution these new mayor represent.

Anyway. For the next few weeks I’ll be looking at the data dashboards for each individual city region in more detail – to try and work out what’s in the new mayors’ inboxes.

You can explore the new data tool yourself here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.