Jeremy Corbyn just proposed what looks suspiciously like a truly radical set of social housing policies

London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn look at some flats. Image: Getty.

I have a problem – one which falls under the heading of “good problems to have”, but it’s a problem, nonetheless.

It’s this. Much of my approach to writing about housing policy over the last half decade or so has involved a combination of simmering rage and snark. It’s thus difficult for me to find the right register with which to communicate the fact the speech on social housing that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave earlier was genuinely, to my mind, good.

The policies the party just proposed will cost money – but doesn’t everything, and it doesn’t look like crazy money. And on an initial reading, at least, this looks like exactly the sort of package of radical housing policy reform I’ve been demanding for the last five years. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?

I did say it was a good problem to have.

Here’s a brief rundown of the headline proposals, with my thoughts. Let’s start with the big one.

One million new “genuinely affordable homes” over a decade, mostly for social rent

That’s not quite 1m new council houses – a chunk of these would be delivered by housing associations – but it gets very close.

Building an average of 100,000 new social homes a year would be a huge shift from where we are now. The last time this country did anything comparable was the late 1970s. In the first example of a pattern you should get used to, Labour wants to turn the clock back to before the Thatcher government.

If you believe the housing crisis is in large part one of supply, then it’s hard to disagree with the goal here. Most analysts reckon this country should be building upwards of 250,000 new homes a year: the only time that has ever happened was during the post-war period when the state was doing much of the building itself.

That said, there are all sorts of reasons to worry that it might be difficult to get from here to there. Off the top of my head: shortage of land, shortage of workers, shortage of bricks.

But Labour does at least have a strategy for dealing with one of the big ones – shortage of money – which is...


Allowing councils to borrow to build

Talk about British local government to someone from almost any other country (I have done this; don’t judge me), and one of the things they will be most baffled by is the lack of autonomy our councils have to run their own affairs. The difficulty they have in borrowing to invest in the needs of their communities is a huge part of this.

And there is logic in letting councils borrow to build homes. New council housing means new assets and new revenue streams: the development should at least partly be able to fund itself. What’s more, tackling the housing crisis locally will also reduce demands for all sorts of other social services, which tend to fall on councils. Bring housing costs down, and you cut the national housing benefit bill, too.

It does mean pushing back against the core logic of austerity, that public debt is always and everywhere a problem. But that may be no bad thing in itself. And such a policy may win some surprising allies: even a few on the right have started to talk about the need to get councils building again.

Ending Right to Buy

This one seems less likely to win support on the right: cut-price home sales to council tenants remains a Tory shibboleth, even though it’s a drain on the public finances.

Scrapping it, though, is almost certainly a good thing. It’ll help shore up council revenues, and increase their incentives to build. What’s more, a depressingly high proportion of Right to Buy homes end up in the hands of private landlords. That feels pretty indefensible in the current climate.

Guarantees that any council tenant whose estate is redeveloped will be offered a replacement on the same site to prevent social cleansing

This will likely cost money: anything which ties councils’ hands when redeveloping an estate will.

But there are pragmatic reasons for doing it, as well as, y’know, moral ones.  One of the main barriers to redeveloping council estate is opposition, stemming in large part from the fact that in past redevelopments existing tenants have often been utterly screwed. Bring the current residents along with you, and redevelopment will get a whole lot easier.

A new definition of “affordable housing” linked to incomes, rather than average rents

This one is a particularly fine idea. Under the current rules, an “affordable home” is one which costs no more than 80 per cent of market rents.

The result of this is that, in more expensive areas, like inner London, 80 per cent of the market rent for a family home is not in any rational universe “affordable”. More to the point, it makes “affordability” a moving target: as rents increase, so do affordable ones. Linking affordable rents to incomes, then, seems a vastly more sensible way of doing things.

*****

Corbyn also promised to close the loopholes around the “viability assessments”, which commercial developers use to get out of affordable housing commitments; to give councils new powers to acquire land, which sounds a lot like stronger compulsory purchase rules; and to create a new government department focusing entirely on housing, which should help to focus minds.

But I’ve been going on quite long enough already. At a first glance, I’m not sure how easy it will be to deliver on all of these policies in one go. And there are gaps: there’s no mention of green belt reform, for example, and it’s not clear to me that some cities will have the space for large numbers of new homes without it.

On the whole, though, all this looks rather good.

I’m not sure how to end an article that comes to such a positive conclusion.

Soooo… Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?

You can read the full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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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.