Poorer cities have borne the brunt of austerity. Time to fix it, Chancellor

Liverpool, 2008. Image: Getty.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities on its latest survey of urban Britain.

Before the 2016 referendum the government’s austerity programme was the defining political issue of our age. Over the last 10 years, the public spending reductions implemented following the 2008 financial crisis have radically altered the nature and shape of the state at the national and in particular at the local level.

Until very recently it looked as if this period of austerity was to become the new normal. But in her party conference speech last October the Prime Minister announced that austerity was coming to an end. Whether austerity actually ends only time will tell, but even if it does for the state as a whole, the worry is that for parts of the public sector, and in particular for local government, the austerity story will carry on well into the next decade. 

Local government experienced the deepest cuts by far in the last ten years. While this has made councils more efficient and effective, the sheer scale of the cuts is increasingly impacting on their ability to provide local services to their residents, particularly those most reliant of such services.

Our Cities Outlook 2019 report, released this week, examined this issue in detail and found that nowhere has felt the fiscal pinch of austerity more than cities. Despite being home to around half the population, the country’s 62 biggest cities and towns have shouldered three quarters of all cuts to local government. In cash terms, this is equivalent to a £386 cut for every city dweller over the last decade, compared to just £172 per person living elsewhere.

Poorer northern cities have been hit especially hard. The five cities that saw the biggest falls in spending were located in the North of England, with Barnsley, Liverpool and Doncaster all seeing real-terms cuts of over 30 per cent. Liverpool’s per head spending fall was by far the biggest in the country, equivalent to £816 for everyone living in the city.

Unfortunately for these cities, their weaker local economies meant that they have been less able to absorb the cuts to their central government grant funding by generating income from other means such as raising council tax or increasing fees and charges for services.

This is a problem on many levels. Firstly, there is a question of fairness. The cuts were not intentionally designed to fall harder on poorer cities, but this is the reality of how they played out. As a result there is a moral case for correcting the unintended impact of this approach.

Secondly, on a more strategic level, cities are the economic hubs that drive our national prosperity; their performance is felt far beyond their political boundaries. Therefore cuts to services that help make our cities vibrant and dynamic places to work, live and visit, such as planning and economic development will not only harm them in the long term, it will also hit the country’s prosperity.

How can we address this situation? Yes, more money would go a long way in the poorer cities that have seen the biggest falls in spending; but it is not just a question of cash. There are relatively cost-free measures that the Chancellor should introduce as part of the upcoming Spending Review to empower city leaders to more effectively manage their finances.


First, the current restrictions on what councils can spend funds raised through public charges on should be loosened. Currently, for example, money raised through parking charges can only be spent on transport. Having to spend scarce funding on potentially unnecessary transport initiatives makes little sense to people seeing their libraries and children’s centres closing due to lack of money. The Chancellor should address this in the upcoming Spending Review.

He should also enable councils to set multi-year budgets – where spend and income can vary year on year within the budget period. The current rules force them to set annual balanced budgets which make delivering long-term strategic service reforms and investments in areas such as health, social care, housing and transport very difficult.

The final challenge for cities’ finances will be the hardest to solve: developing a sustainable social care funding strategy. Cities Outlook 2019 found that the growing demand for social care is adding to the squeeze on cities’ finances. A decade ago, just four cities out of the 62 we studied spent the majority of their budget on social care: now, half of them do. It is no coincidence that Barnsley, the city that has seen the largest cut in spending nationally, is also the city that dedicates the largest share of its budget to funding social care in Britain.

Developing a long-term plan for meeting our growing social care demands is crucial to addressing cities’ financial challenges.

Cities are home to 58 per cent of the UK’s high skilled jobs, 60 per cent of new business starts and 62 per cent of the country’s GVA, making them vital to our national success. However a decade of falling spending, particularly in areas deemed “non-essential” such as economic development, planning and skills, has greatly weakened the capacity of cities to support sustainable long-term growth.

The upcoming Spending Review is an opportunity for the Chancellor to address this challenge and allow them to take back control of their finances. It is in all of our interests that he doesn’t miss this opportunity.  

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities; you can read its Cities Outlook 2019 report here.

This article previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

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.