What can cities teach us about tackling radicalisation?

A far right rally in Newcastle, England: a form of radicalisation we don't talk about enough. Image: Lionheart Photography/Wikimedia Commons.

Radicalisation has been thrust into the spotlight following terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice and, while undoubtedly a major security concern, it also highlights numerous social issues at play. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and poor integration leave communities fractured, and individuals at risk of being sucked into radical ideologies that offer an escape from everyday life.

A study in Amsterdam among a small group of returnees from Syria reveals a common set of characteristics: most are under 25, have criminal records, and display a multitude of problems such as mental health issues, poor self image, low self confidence or unsafe home lives. These are often, though not always, young people who lack opportunities or a sense of belonging.

The education system can therefore be a first step towards addressing radicalisation, enabling authorities to spot and report early signs and engage young people in activities. As part of its radicalisation strategy, Helsinki encourages students and young people to get involved in associations and plan school activities and events. Schools in Amsterdam and Ghent have trained staff ready to identify at-risk individuals early enough for the authorities to intervene. Bilbao, meanwhile, works with unaccompanied foreign minors to provide training, workshops, cultural and sports activities.

Radical Islamism may be the most high profile, but it isn’t the only form of radicalisation. Cities’ experiences show the importance of addressing all types of radicalisation, including hate crimes, political extremism and Islamophobia. Focusing on a single target group can be counterproductive, risking further tensions and stigmatisation. Ghent intentionally avoids targeting groups according to religion in its local action plan for fear of generating a "them against us" culture. Other cities are concerned with different types of radicalisation, like political – far right or left – groups in Brno, Dresden and Tampere; while Hamburg set up a prevention network in 2014 to address Islamophobia as well as violent religious extremism.

Building relations within communities is far more important than creating divisions. Anti-radicalisation efforts in Bilbao are embedded in the city’s programmes to manage religious diversity by maintaining and developing relations with all religious communities. Other cities have channels to directly address residents’ concerns and alleviate tensions. Rotterdam organises meetings between local residents and the city. Following last November’s Paris attacks, these drew hundreds of people from different backgrounds to discuss freedom of expression, radicalisation, extremism, discrimination and integration.

The terror attacks and ongoing refugee situation have put more media scrutiny and greater pressure on cities to get it right, and have exacerbated underlying tensions. Helsinki has been prompted to strengthen its integration policies by allocating a further €10m and boosting funding for multicultural outreach, with the aim of promoting dialogue and trust between asylum seekers and local residents.

European cities find themselves operating under different conditions. Some work under national frameworks like the UK’s Prevent strategy, while others have been left much to their own devices, like Belgian cities Antwerp and Ghent.

But what is commonly recognised is the need to cooperate with different partners. Working with social services, schools, grassroots organisations, community leaders and the police is common practice in European cities. Gothenburg’s "Safe in Gothenburg" programme is a collaboration between police and city authorities, while in Amsterdam the mayor meets regularly with the police and public prosecutor to determine threats and priorities. Highly-trained personnel are also needed, and cities such as these have hired several experienced staff in the past year. This costs money, and funding can come from a variety of sources: from the cities themselves, through national programmes such in Leeds and Manchester, identified as priority areas under Prevent, or through EU funds, like in Bologna.

Given that many cities are in the early stages of their anti-radicalisation work, it is hard yet to measure impact. This makes networks like EUROCITIES all the more important, as we offer an outlet for cities to share what works and what doesn’t, and get inspired by others.

We need to make our societies more inclusive and integrated to get to the heart of this challenge. Radicalisation may be a major concern at national and European level, but it is in cities that we can really prevent it by addressing it at the root causes.

You can find out more about this subject in EUROCITIES' report, "City responses on preventing radicalisation and violent extremism: social inclusion as a tool?’". The report is supported by the European Commission’s Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

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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.