The Right To Buy is now the biggest threat to the Right To Buy, argues LGA

Council houses in Lambeth, South London. Image: Getty.

Councils have good reason not to like the Right To Buy, the Thatcher-era policy which gives council tenants the right to buy their council homes. It was foisted upon them by national government. It forced them to sell assets that they owned and, in many cases, had built too, and to do so at a discount. 

And most annoyingly of all, they didn’t even get to keep the takings: for much of the scheme’s history, those went straight to the Treasury (though they can now hang on to them if they get special permission from the government first). If someone forced you to sell your stuff for a fraction of its value and then ran off with the money, you wouldn’t enjoy the experience either.

So it’d be no surprise if the Local Government Association (LGA), an umbrella group representing councils, might not be wild about Right To Buy either. But it’s come up with a much more subtle strategy than merely hating on it. The problem with Right To Buy, a report published yesterday argues, is not that it’s a poor deal for the taxpayer, or that it’s mucked up the housing market. The problem with Right To Buy is that it’s “threatening the future of Right To Buy”. 

A quote:

Tenants have received discounts of nearly £5bn to help purchase their council home under the Right to Buy (RTB) scheme since the size of the discount was increased in April 2012, new analysis by the Local Government Association reveals today.

While Right to Buy has helped many families get on the housing ladder, the LGA said the scheme faces an uncertain future unless councils are given the flexibility to set discounts locally and retain 100 per cent of sales receipts to fund the replacement of homes sold off under the scheme.

I completely and utterly love the sneakiness of this press release. If zooms past the shocking fact that the government has chucked nearly £5bn at a few lucky people as part of a policy that has always shamelessly being about turning Labour council tenants into Tory voting homeowners. (No such discounts are on offer for private tenants to buy out their landlords, you note.) It doesn’t dwell on the fact the whole policy is frankly insulting to councils, treating them as lackeys for central government rather than democratic institutions in their own right. All that’s in there, but we’re left to infer that it’s bad.

No: the real problem with Right to Buy is that it’s just endangering Right To Buy. If we keep going like this, the argument runs, there won’t be any properties left to sell under Right To Buy, and where will Right To Buy be then? Surely even this Tory government will be moved by Right To Buy’s plight?

To be honest, I mainly wanted to comment on this campaign tactic (honestly, it’s genius), but since we’ve come this far, let’s look at the rest of the press release. The LGA’s figures – that £4.9bn in discounts – were arrived at by adding up the discounts on the 79,119 homes sold under the schemes between 2012-13 and 2018-19. 

Why start in April 2012? Because that’s when the Cameron government amended the policy, to increase the available discount to £75,000 or 60 per cent of the value of a house/70 per cent of that of a flat, whichever is lower. That is a hell of a discount – so not unnaturally, a lot of tenants have gone for it, and a lot of councils have been left out of pocket.

There’s more. As it stands, councils are only able to use a third of their receipts – already less than the value of a home – to build a replacement. Shockingly, by which I mean it’s not actually remotely shocking in any way, this hasn’t resulted in like to like replacements, and 

...with councils only able to use a third of each retained RTB receipt to build a replacement home, they have only been able to replace around a quarter (21,720) of these homes sold in the same period.

The goverment has promised that homes build under Right To Buy would be replaced by new social homes built using the takings, but that obviously hasn’t happened. Luckily, the government has a plan for this too: blame councils. From a consultation document, dating from August 2018:

...local authorities have not been building enough Right to Buy replacements to match the pace of sales and the commitment that every additional home sold would be replaced on a one-for-one basis nationally is no longer being met. It is clear that local authorities need to increase their rate of delivery of new homes if they are to match the growth in sales.

To rectify all this, the LGA is calling on the government to do two things. One is to give councils more power to set discounts, to take greater account of local market conditions. The other is to allow them to keep 100 per cent of sales receipts to build new homes. Whether government will listen remains to be seen.

I do wonder, though, if the first part of the LGA’s argument might just resonate. Right To Buy is totemic in Tory circles, a symbol of how the party helps the ambitious who want to get on blah blah blah. But it is hard to see how it can continue forever, simply because councils will eventually run out of homes to sell. The attempt to extend it to housing associations – forcing non-government bodies to sell assets that the government doesn’t even own! – is a sign that the government is keen to keep it rolling in some form. One obvious next step would be to extend it to the Private Rental Sector – honestly, it’s no sillier than the housing association thing – but every time anyone suggests that the Tories all start spluttering about property rights, as if housing associations and councils don’t have property rights too.

So perhaps the LGA may have found a clever strategy to win a Tory government round to the cause of building council houses. “You want Right To Buy to continue?” its latest press release asks. “Then let us build more stuff to sell.” Worth a try.

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


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.