“In the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased”

Cosy, but also bad for you. Image: Getty.

The heating in our homes is not being turned off this winter, despite National Grid issuing warnings about gas supply levels. Yet it is our thirst for gas that made this nightmare scenario a more real possibility in the first place.

In this instance, there is reason to believe that this was an exceptional event. The so-called Beast from the East has pushed up gas demand and has also caused problems in gas supply lines from Norway and the Netherlands. Compounding this has been the closure of gas storage facilities that have further restricted supply.

But, even if such weather events are exceptional, this situation was also entirely avoidable – If only successive governments had not failed to promote the decarbonisation of our heating system.

While there are many positive stories of the growing importance of renewables, such as offshore wind, this progress almost entirely relates to our electricity, not our heating. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 75 per cent of declining emissions from 2012 to 2016 have come from using less coal for power generation. But in the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased.

This lack of focus on heating is largely because previous governments have argued that security of supply and affordability are more important than decarbonisation, and have instead opted to stick with gas for heating. The current projections from National Grid suggest that this was misguided.

Looking first at security of supply, if anything, the opposite is true. In 2016, 77 per cent of households in the UK relied on natural gas for heating the home. Given the UK imported just under 60 per cent of its natural gas supply in that year, if extreme weather events caused more severe problems than they have this week, the impact would be dramatic.

By contrast, both renewable heating methods and energy efficiency upgrades are more likely to increase security of supply because they are largely locally sourced and do not rely on a wider network of imports.

In particular, energy efficiency improvements like loft and wall insulation are very good at increasing security of supply, because they reduce the overall energy demand of a household and often do not require a specific heating system. Indeed, from 2004-2015 energy efficiency improvements helped to decrease gas demand by 37 per cent.

Yet policy in this area has been historically, and presently, weak because of the second challenge: affordability. The picture is characterised by a constant lack of ambition and funding which inherently stymies the opportunity for any meaningful cost reductions.

Indeed, the National Audit Office recently suggested that the Renewable Heat Incentive, the main scheme providing subsidies for renewable heating technologies, has been over-optimistic about take-up and poorly delivered. Upcoming research from IPPR and Citizens Advice will further demonstrate that the main scheme offering energy efficiency upgrades to households in England and Wales, the Energy Company Obligation, is similarly not fit for purpose.

The idea that any solution other than gas is unaffordable is particularly strange when juxtaposed with the dramatic cost reductions from offshore wind in the power sector – which have actually led to some projects being cheaper than gas used for power.

These reductions were only achievable because the project had sufficient funding in the first place. So it is bewildering that this does not currently serve as a template for what can be achieved in the heating sector.

In fairness, there is some recognition in the current government’s Clean Growth Strategy of the importance of scaling up low carbon heating and energy efficiency deployment, and there are plans for consultations in these areas. But the very immediate concerns with our current system of gas heating must add to urgency with which these are conducted.

In short, decarbonising our heat is no longer just about reducing emissions: it is about protecting the right to keep our homes warm.

Joshua Emden is a research fellow in the environment, housing and infrastructure team at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).


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.