by Noldy Belizaire, Phillip Carnell, and Colin Delargy
Building off of our last blog post, we want to give an update on the eviction tracking tool that we have developed, discuss its potential importance, and identify potential conflicts and strategies related to its release.
PART I: The Tool itself
A beta version of this tool has been built.
- The tool allows users to see where, when and to what extent evictions are occurring across Atlanta, with interactive features to establish greater understanding across space, time and a variety of data.
- It necessitates both an interactive test drive and feedback round to ensure the design is intuitive, user friendly and useable for a variety of community organizations.
- Some features of the tool are not optimal at the current state, but these decisions were made in the interest of time and expediency (the current platform is not open source, data is not 100% accurate, and issues of data security still linger; these issues will be discussed below).
As discussed in the previous post, the tool has two main objectives. It should be used to facilitate:
- Immediate action, mobilizing, canvassing and tenant outreach for tenants and activists alike
- Comprehensive, macro-scale analysis of eviction information to assist in more structural change, writing policy proposals and submitting reports
Both of these objectives align with Housing Justice League’s current aims. For more information, please refer to our last blog post.
The tool can be accessed via the following link: https://public.tableau.com/profile/carnellphillip#!/vizhome/MockUp1_16051574488900/Dashboard1
Below are screenshots of the tool in its current form:
Interactive data analysis allows users to both see where and when evictions are most intense, with pop-up information available at each address containing evictions. Our goal was to make this as intuitive, quick and easy-to-use as possible, while still allowing for a multitude of functions depending on the particular needs of whoever is using the tool.
Part 2: The tool’s importance and conflicts with its use
The substance of this tool has the potential to provide powerful information to tenant activist groups and other organizations working towards more housing security in the city. Although formal evictions only represent a small portion of total evictions in Atlanta, being able to identify landlords and recognize structural patterns to evictions allows for more effective and supportive tenant organizing. It also introduces a new variable into the conversation surrounding evictions in the city; in addition to letting us ask “Who is being evicted, and where?”, we can start to ask ourselves “Who is evicting, and when?”
There are some examples of similar tools being used in the United States and elsewhere. NYC tracks this information and claims a robust data verifying process, but the tool is difficult to use effectively: http://lookup.heatseek.org/. There is a similar map in Milwaukee that tracks evictions and shows ownership information (including the names under which owners typically file evictions, which can differ from parent company names). Housing activists in cities like Berlin have expressed to us personally the potential value of a tool like this but do not have access to data necessary to create it (see, for example, Wem gehört Berlin?). Basel, Switzerland provides some publicly accessible landlord information, but does not link it with housing insecurity. It may be important to look at European counterparts as well as domestic ones because of the increasing globalization of corporate landlords over the past decade. We hope to build on existing tools first, by providing this information in Atlanta, and second, by co-designing the map with tenant organizing groups who can let us know what information, features and interface are most helpful for them.
Our goal in designing this tool was that it will appeal to a wide variety of users who will have their own particular uses for it. The chart below shows our workflow as well as a few proposed outputs for advocates. This list is gathered from input from our professor, Dr. Elora Raymond, from contacts that she has with housing justice advocates in the city and from our conversations with tenant organizing groups such as Housing Justice League. It is by no means exhaustive. In designing the tool, we wanted to make sure not to put ourselves in too tight of a box, design-wise. The scope of how this tool can or should be used is not pre-defined. Instead, we have tried to leave this tool intentionally open and interactive for a variety of users to see how it can be used to their benefit. Ideally, as people make use of the tool, new needs and obsolete features will be identified and either incorporated or abandoned. We see particular use for organizations or initiatives that have limited resources and want to target interventions to high-need areas.
There have been some challenges in determining where a tool like ours could be published or how it should be made available. Because of the presence of personal landlord data, many public institutions (ARC) and private companies (AJC) with a broader reach might not feel comfortable or might not be in a legal position to give their official support in the form of online hosting space or funding for this tool.
In addition, landlord data cannot be obtained as frequently and may be irregularly updated from public sources in comparison to eviction filings. The data obtained may also tell us little about the true ownership and management of the property, as many properties are owned by corporate and investment landlords under the guise of limited-liability corporations (LLC’s) and managed by a third-party property manager. Furthermore, our joining process for linking landlords to evictions may have minor errors, so results need to be read with a caveat and further investigated. Each of these considerations inhibits our ability to further understand who is doing the evicting; therefore, the major value added of this tool is in allowing us to understand where and when. It can be seen as a first scanning of the evictions landscape, but all information should be double-checked. Opportunities to further investigate the ownership of evicting properties may seek to unveil who owns these landowning LLC’s, and furthermore, look into who is managing the properties for them.
One expressed concern that formal institutions have is that their involvement with such a tool would amount to interfering inappropriately in the private real-estate market. Without the guaranteed backing of institutions with adequate resources, questions surrounding hosting, maintaining, securing and promoting the tool need to be fleshed out in order to ensure the tool’s longevity, stability and usefulness. This may mean changing parts of the tool that would be useful in order to comply with a host organization’s concerns. We expect a little bit of compromise to be necessary moving forward. In the next section, we will open up some issues that have been on our minds.
PART 3 – Reflections & a proposed strategy
In addition to hosting, maintaining and promoting the evictions map, we must also keep in mind how data justice and security can be preserved, especially for people whose evictions are being mapped. We are dealing with sensitive personal information: where people live, the legal status of their housing and landlord information (not all of whom are evil). The last thing that someone facing housing insecurity needs is compromised data security as well. Typically, the way to ensure the safest data security is to not collect data in the first place. Still, we believe enough in the potentials of this tool that we would like to find some workable compromise. We have begun reaching out to activists around the country who deal with data privacy in activism work to get advice on how we should best deal with the delicate data we are collecting. A short list of resources, with links, we are trying to tap into include: Virginia Eubanks (author of Automating Justice), the Muckrock group, Lucy Parson Labs, working on policing in Chicago, the Library Freedom Project, the Detroit Community Technology Project as well as the activists and academic working on the Bay Area’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, mentioned in our last post. Data specialists at Georgia Tech and Emory are also helping to advise on this aspect of the project.
Hosting, storing, maintaining and advertising a tool might sound like back-end tedium, but this process matters for community organizing work. A tool like ours requires maintenance and up-to-date data in order to be relevant. When counties change how they publish data, new workarounds must be designed. Maintenance costs, money and time, and identifying organizations willing/able to take on this burden, especially in a time where many institutions are facing a monetary crunch due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is difficult. It is exactly this pandemic that has emphasized the urgency of this tool while potentially undercutting financial requirements for making it useable.
Likewise, we have had to deal with two competing issues: useability and security/longevity. We have found in our work that user-familiar and user-friendly interfaces are often provided by for-profit companies (ArcGIS, Tableau), while their open-source counterparts, although free, often community-driven and more sustainable, have a steep learning curve and require a lot of technical know-how in order to be used (Boeing, 2020). Our beta-version is made with Tableau, but we are looking into open-source alternatives that allow for the same ease of use. The institutional discomfort described above adds to the difficulty, as these supportive institutions are often the source of substantial technical know-how and informational resources to help design open-source programs. Ideally, if we want to create longevity with this tool, finding a sustainable, responsible organization to host and maintain the data and platform is non-trivial.
The if in the previous sentence should not be overlooked. Just because a tool exists does not mean it should automatically get thrown out into the world for all to use without restriction. On the one hand, a tool like the landlord tracker provides advocacy groups with a good chance to balance the scale between tenants and landlords with respect to access to data. Company (LLC) and corporate landlords with the means to gather and process this data independently have access to much broader informational resources than tenants typically do, giving them additional power over their tenants. The CDC moratorium, furthermore, puts a lot of the onus of information gathering on tenants, not landlords. By balancing these informational resources, we hope that this tool will allow tenants to organize their limited personnel and financial resources more effectively. Ideally, this tool gets used in this way.
On the other hand, mappers have a special responsibility to the people, places and things they are mapping. Being seen or mapped is not always good for vulnerable people or communities. Mapping tools can often be coopted by powerful actors who use them to their own ends, undermining the mappers’ or activists’ initial intent of the tool, often unexpectedly. An evictions map, for example, overlapped onto voting data, could be used to mobilize get-out-the-vote campaigns that provide much-needed political voice to neighborhoods with extensive housing insecurity, just as well as it could be used to aid in voter suppression by identifying addresses where a voter’s registration is in questionable status because their address has changed due to an eviction. Before we automatically release our tool into the world, we must think carefully about what unintended consequences it might have. The last thing we want to do is leave at-risk communities at an even greater disadvantage through this tool. At the same time, no release will be perfect, and some errors are tolerable. Balancing these two issues is important to us as we work with communities. This is why hosting, maintaining and unveiling the tool become just as important as the interface design and substance discussed in our last post and require collaborative input.
In the next few paragraphs, we want to discuss one possible strategy for unveiling this tool in line with our goals for supporting housing advocates in the city that we think might strike a good balance.
Given the concerns listed above, we must be flexible in our understanding of this tool. One way that we have tried to incorporate flexibility without compromising security is by asking ourselves when our strategies have done “enough.” Although there is a lot of data we could show, it might be better to slowly build up that data than to provide a tool that provides excessive information and runs the risk of being hard to use (or easy to misuse). Similarly, we are open to the idea that this tool might only be limitedly accessible, or only accessible at certain times, or have a variety of public and semi-private versions to regulate use. That is to say that our strategies for unveiling must be moderate and goal-oriented, even if that means that the tool doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that we or others might want. One metaphor that we personally like is the 2020 Hong Kong protests’ directive to “be water” while protesting. This advice may be appropriate in this circumstance as well. What “being water” means for us will depend on the immediate needs of activists using the tool, and we should be agile enough to adapt the tool to these needs.
One such need is fast approaching in January 2021, and this provides us with a concrete timeline and directive for this phase of development, as well as a good example of what “being water” could mean for us. The current CDC eviction moratorium phases out at the end of the year, and although its efficacy is contested (especially in Georgia), housing lawyers anticipate a massive swell of evictions in the first days of 2021 (Housing Justice League 2020). Here, a day-by-day timeline is important. January 1 is a holiday and a Friday, meaning that courts won’t be open again until Monday the 4th. Traditionally, counties process eviction filings slowly at the beginning of the year because courts have been closed for the two weeks since Christmas and have to process backlog. This is expected to be even more severe this year due to the backlog from the moratorium.
Two other dates are important in January. The first is January 5, the date of the two national Senate election races, around which massive influxes of national attention and money are converging into Georgia and on Atlanta in particular. The city can expect a megaphone effect for any issues around this time as the fate of the Senate and the national governing coalition rests on the shoulders of grassroots organizers across the state. That Atlanta’s mayor has been shortlisted as HUD secretary puts the spotlight even more directly on the importance of Atlanta housing for federal policy and the interest that could be garnered nationally around this topic. Housing activists are aware of the potentials and the challenges that this might mean, as vulnerable tenants serve as political collateral for other issues and campaigns. If our tool can facilitate organizing, there is potential to build off of the energy surrounding the elections.
The second important date is January 20, Inauguration Day. President-elect Biden has the authority to make broad executive orders surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is good reason to assume that these will include new eviction-related housing policies. Until this date, however, it is unclear whether any directives, legislative or executive, can be expected at the federal level. Likewise, Georgia’s Governor Kemp has not signaled that he approves of issuing pandemic relief from the state level. Here is where local tactics become important. The first three weeks of 2021 are expected to be a gray area for housing justice, activists and tenants facing eviction. Many landlords are expected to move quickly within this window to evict as many people as possible before new regulations emerge, and tenant advocates have an incentive to gum up the works in eviction processing for these 3 weeks. We hope that our tool might be of punctual service here, providing easy, clear, spatial information to tenant outreach and landlord information for other forms of protesting, lobbying and intervention. What’s more, in the unveiling process, time is on the side of activists, as there will be a natural delay before the tool becomes more broadly known outside of our immediate social networks. Once the new administration is in office, we can expect that pressure will release a little. So, with reference to earlier, it may be enough for our tool to go live during this short window, after which the tool could be taken offline and evaluated. If needed, a new implementation strategy could be discussed among stakeholders.
Overall, these are some of the considerations that have fueled our design and release of the landlord and eviction map. Although this conversation might show the in-the-weeds, un-cool part of community organizing, it is important to ensure that the tools we build serve and protect the communities they are meant to, rather than our wishes as academics and researchers. In the coming weeks, we will reconvene with housing activists, give them a rundown of the tool and prepare for a launch in time for 2021.
Boeing, G. 2020. “The Right Tools for the Job: The Case for Spatial Science Tool-Building.” Transactions in GIS, 24 (5), 1299-1314. doi:10.1111/tgis.12678
Eubanks, V., 2018. Automating inequality: How high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor. St. Martin’s Press.
Other Links and resources:
Detroit Community Technology Project. URL: https://detroitcommunitytech.org/?q=us. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
Housing Justice League. 2020. Mass Meeting 17 November 2020. online
Library Freedom Project. URL: https://libraryfreedom.org/. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
Lucy Parsons Labs. URL: https://lucyparsonslabs.com/about/press/. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
MuckRock. URL: https://www.muckrock.com/about/. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
NYC Landlord Lookup. 2020. URL: http://lookup.heatseek.org/about.html. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
Wem Gehört Berlin? 2018. URL: https://wem-gehoert.berlin/faq/. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.
Wisconsin Policy Forum & Urban Economic Development Association (UEDA). 2019. URL: https://mke-evict.com/about/. Last accessed: November 23, 2020.