“You English, you always think you know everything”: on Brussels and Brexit

Drooping flags at the European Commission. Image: James Cooray Smith.

I didn’t visit Brussels the week after the Prime Minister sent her Article 50 notification to Donald Tusk in order to write, or even think, about Brexit. Which seems stupid, now I see it written down.

I was just going to take a few days off. My wife wanted to visit chocolate shops, and indulge in a little nostalgia (we were in a hotel she had fond memories of visiting as a child). Both of us wanted to see at least some of Brussels’ many excellent museums.

The Musée de la Bandes Dessinée (comics to you and me), housed in a former factory designed by Victor Horta, is gorgeous; while the Musée Magritte,  astounding and worth a trip on its own, is merely one part of the complex of galleries that constitute the Royal Museums of Fine Arts that would take weeks to explore properly.  Whoever coined the truism about there being nothing to do in Brussels was, like the wag who commented on the inevitable shortness of any list of famous Belgians, inadvertently confessing to an astounding, profound ignorance of art. And presumably doesn’t like chocolate.

So: exhibitions and lunches (Belga Queen’s €20 set menu is your best option for the latter). That was the plan.

But in the legislative capital of the European Union, as citizens of both that union and a country that has decided to leave it, contemplating the latter fact becomes unavoidable. No matter how much you just want to find a museum devoted to Francophone comics or order yet another cone of chips, it always comes up.

This is not just my imagination, a “sadness in their eyes” thing. Brief comments emerge constantly. On the Metro. In the lift. Ordering coffee. Sometimes there are scowls. Sometimes there are sympathetic looks. There is – and it will irritate so called liberal leavers to read this, but it’s there more often than not – an assumption that not being white means we’re not in favour of Brexit.

Even when you’re not being directly confronted with your newly minted foreigner status, it’s hard not to be reminded of it. Most things you see set off a Brexit related train of thought. You spend a lot of time wondering what the EU will do about the vast number of things in the city that are named after Winston Churchill; Brussels, like Churchill’s own family, recognises him as one of the founding fathers of the European union in exactly the way British culture generally doesn’t.

Every hunt for a postcard or a stamp prompts renewed realisation that there is an astonishing amount of tourist tat, from bedsheets to bow-ties, that will have to be sold at knockdown prices (or binned) and then redesigned to remove the Union flag.

The flags. 

Yes, that flag. Even now it’s hard not to be taken aback by the sight of the Union Jack flying – or rather drooping, given the lack of wind this week – next to the flags of other European nations. It already looks like it doesn’t belong there: a spectre at this feast of european unity. You find yourself wondering if they’ll have to take down the twenty-eighth flag pole in all these locations when we go. Or whether they’ll just keep it there, ready to run the Saltire up it before the end of the next decade.

And that’s the other curious thing: while Brexit constantly comes up, no one wants to talk about it, except briefly, on the surface. It’s the topic you cannot avoid, but with which no one wants to engage.

The congregation of the English speaking Catholic church, Eglise St-Nicolas, gathered outside after Palm Sunday Mass, offer shrugs and condolences. I want to know whether attitudes to the British, to English speakers even, have changed in the last few months. I get the word “wariness”, but little else. I’m not sure if they’re expressing their own, or saying that that of others has increased.

And all I can get out of the woman in Sterling, the lovely pun-festooned, English language bookshop on Rue du Fossé aux Loups, is, “It’s very sad.” She declines to talk further or to give her name. There is a feeling that journalists, especially British journalists, are actors in the Brexit psychodrama, not mere observers. It’s a shame. I wanted to know how this business, above all others, would be impacted by Brexit, and if it already has been. 

Inside Churchill's.

So I try Churchill’s, which advertises itself as the famous English Pub in Brussels, and possibly the only Churchill related landmark in the city that won’t find itself renamed by 2019.  With its postcards of The Small Faces, little flags behind the bar and repeated use of that photograph of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) holding a machine gun, it demonstrates both a bullishly, even clichéd, idea of British identity, combined with a strident insistence that this is naturally integrated into some kind pan-europeanism. Which is quite a thing to achieve through pub decor alone.

Sam, a Belgian football journalist killing time before the Anderlecht game, is the only patron willing to be quoted and named. His brother lives and works in Winchester, which he likes, but describes, curiously, as being “not really England, in the way that New York is not really America”.

He says that the circles he moves in consist of people aghast at the UK’s decision, but that he is “50/50 on it” now that it’s happening. The UK can send a strong message to the EU Commission about the need to tackle its “democratic deficit, which nobody talks about”. I tell him it’s a phrase we hear a lot in the UK; he seems surprised.

“The UK will probably survive Brexit,” he says – and if it doesn’t, then that is a lesson for the union as well. He adds that “it shouldn’t be impossible to leave the EU”; but he acknowledges that the practical difficulties are immense, whatever one’s view of the desirability of any country’s exit. It surprises him that Greece has not already gone. “Whatever happens, it will be the middle class” – in the American, not British, sense – “that have to pay. The top earners will always be fine.”

And again.

I’m still looking for a Brussels-based British citizen to talk to. I try the barman, but he’s Irish. (The pub has a sizeable Irish contingent.) When I ask, there is understandable schadenfreude at the fact Britain has committed what is perceived to be an astounding act of irreparable self-harm. I decide not to bring up the many implications for the Republic’s relationship with the north.

As we return to St Pancras that evening, a man from immigration collars some teenagers who have already shown their passports, politely, three times during the journey from Brussels Midi. He enquires, with unnecessary scepticism, about their nationality and how long they intend to stay in the UK. I can see by their passports that they have, for the moment at least, absolute freedom of movement within the UK – and that he has no practical reason, or right, to ask that question.

It feels ugly, mean-spirited, pointlessly exclusionary.  And it spoils these young people’s fun: this is not what they thought they were getting from a trip to London. One of the teenagers becomes irritated with the border guard and says, in English far better than my French, that there is nothing he is able to tell him that he doesn’t already know.

I remember the woman in Brussels City Tours a few days before, as I tried to explain that I already knew what she was trying to tell me. “Yes,” she said, firmly but not unkindly. “You English, you always think you know everything already, of course. You can never be wrong.”

James Cooray Smith tweets as @thejimsmith.

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Images: author provided.


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.