In the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory in the USA as well as the increasing hypervisibility of movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, race is firmly at the forefront of conversation. And whilst we are increasingly discussing police brutality, upsurges in racially motivated hate crimes, mental illness in minority communities, employment disparities between the races, the need for intersectional Feminism, among other vital topics, it seems meaningful conversations about inequality in housing for members of minority communities are still only being had by a few.
Indeed, for years rising rental and property prices have been a subject of our bemoaning but how race impacts on who feels this most acutely has not been factored into these debates. Forty years on from the Race Relations Act of 1976, and thirty years since the publication of the Housing Corporation’s first BME Housing Strategy 1986, black and minority ethnic (BME) groups in Britain remain more likely to occupy the worst housing, to be living in overcrowded conditions, live in the most deprived neighbourhoods, have fewer assets, and earn lower incomes than their white counterparts, according to research conducted by the Human City Institute and BMENational.
Among the many indicators of racial inequality in Britain, housing disparities in particular are very telling. People from BME communities are at least three times more likely to endure housing deprivation than people from white communities. With this in mind, is it time to have a more honest conversation about alternative solutions to racial inequalities in mainstream housing?
Research carried out across 2015/ 2016 by Birmingham-based think tank and research charity Human City Institute found that now more than ever there is a strong need for BME specific housing provisions to counter the imbalance in mainstream housing. The proportion of lettings made by all mainstream social landlords in England over the ten years between the Censuses in 2001 and 2011 rose from 14 per cent to 16 per cent; however, during this time period the BME population in England has increased by 10 per cent (from 7 per cent to 17 per cent).
And although BME specific housing associations were founded as a direct response to racism and exclusion in the 1980s and 1990s, some critics have claimed that while BME specific housing served a purpose and filled a gap back then, today it is a practice that only serves to ‘promote division’. In July 2014, Orbit Housing found itself at the centre of controversy when a local newspaper uncovered past advertisements for a supported housing scheme that apparently offered priority to ‘Asian applicants’.
Speaking to the property publication Inside Housing in October 2014, chair of BMENational Cym D’souza remarked that ‘the purpose of BME organisations remains the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago’. In October 2013, The Guardian reported, following a BBC investigation, that estate agents were discriminating against black people by pretending flats had already been let (or sold) or promising to call hopeful tenants back but never doing so. The article also stated that ‘in the past three years there have been only two investigations into racism allegations by the property ombudsman as a result of complaints, neither of which were upheld. There have been no investigations by the equality and human rights commission’.
The beleaguered BME housing sector is almost exclusively comprised of grassroots, community-grown organisations – deeply embedded in some of the most deprived areas of the UK and responsive to the needs of these communities in a way that larger organisations might not be. A grim list of hurdles faced by BME people when it comes to housing, including racist landlords and estate agents going unchecked, is perhaps all the more galling because of the increased gentrification in the communities that they are most likely to live, with East and South East London being recent examples of this.
Drawing on 2011 census data, the Race Equality Foundation shows that Bangladeshi households are 63 per cent and Black African households 75 per cent more likely than white British households to suffer ‘housing deprivation’ (indicators of which include overcrowding and an absence of central heating); while White Gypsy and Irish Traveller households are seven and-a-half times more likely to experience deprivation in this way.
Research conducted by the University of Manchester in October 2013 found that home ownership amongst all ethnic groups decreased between 1991 and 2011, with minority groups being overrepresented in insecure private rented accommodation. The increase in private renting between 1991 and 2011 was proportionately greatest for the Indian, Pakistani and Black Caribbean populations (for whom the per cent in private renting more than doubled) and least for the Black African and Chinese ethnic groups. Ethnic inequalities in housing are more pronounced among young adults than for the wider population as a whole. The research also highlighted – for 25- to 34-year-olds – the proportion in private renting ranges from 31 per cent for Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi ethnic groups to 74 per cent for the ‘Other White’ group.
The damning statistics do not end there. BME groups are also more likely to experience homelessness, reports the Institute of Race Relations. In Wolverhampton, for example, in 2011, 26 per cent of the population were from a BME community, but these same communities made up about 40 per cent of the homeless cases seen by the local authority. In 2014 the Runnymede Trust found that in the East London borough of Redbridge, black people made up 26 per cent of homeless persons, whilst making up 9 per cent of the population. White people made up 24 per cent of the homelessness population whilst 63.5 per cent of Redbridge’s total population.
According to BME National and the Human City Institute, 28 per cent of statutory homeless households were from a ‘BME background’ in 2001; by 2011 this had increased to 33 per cent and by 2013 this had increased to 37 per cent.
Homelessness is further disproportionally experienced by migrant groups. The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain), in its annual bulletin for 2014/15, said that 57 per cent of those rough-sleeping in London were not from the UK. 36 per cent of those rough-sleeping were from Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, with Romanians making up 19 per cent of this figure. 5 per cent were from African countries, and 4 per cent were of Asian nationality.
The facts speak for themselves. Although some may still argue that we are ‘post-race’ (whatever that means) and celebrate the ‘multi-culturalism’ of Britain, London in particular, I argue, and have been arguing for the last three years, that Britain is institutionally racist: from education, to employment, to housing. Hailing from South East London myself, my family moved to the West Midlands as a result of rising rent prices, poorer quality of living, gentrification and the social cleansing that took place in Surrey Quays. And although today, BME housing organisations are a small but vital part of the social housing sector comprising 2-3% of the housing association stock, BME specific housing is not an option my family were aware of four, five, or even ten years ago. Would we have used such services had we been aware? Yes.
Collectively, the 70 remaining BME housing organisations manage 65,000 homes, with an estimated annual turnover of £600m and controlling assets valued at around £1.8bn. Just over half are full members of BMENational. BME housing organisations house mainly South-East Asians, African-Caribbeans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Irish and Jewish people. They increasingly assist non-BME people and new migrants (including from Eastern Europe) and refugees from various war zones past and present are also supported by BME housing organisations. They retain their role in meeting the special needs of BME communities but most have branched out over the last fifteen years into meeting general family needs and the needs of homeless people and refugees and asylum seekers.
Since 1980, there has been considerable fluctuation in the UK housing market. Overall, growing demand has locked heads with relatively limited supply. House prices have been increasing, and first time buyers are finding it more difficult to get on the property ladder – while home ownership among younger age groups generally has declined. As the UK population continues to grow, housing is likely to remain an important topic in the future and so, interrogation of the structures that consistently hinder BME families disproportionately from renting and owning homes in Britain will continue. And perhaps one day there will no longer be a need for BME specific housing associations and initiatives just as maybe one day we will no longer have to grapple with the monster of racism on micro, macro, personal and institutional levels. However, whilst Britain remains set up in such a way that marginalises BME communities, the ‘For Us, By Us’ model is as vital now as it was in the 1980s.
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Hailing from London – via Freetown – Siana Bangura is a History graduate of the University of Cambridge, a writer, blogger, journalist, and Black British Feminist. She is the founder and editor of No Fly on the WALL, a platform to discuss, celebrate, and engage with Intersectional Feminism, with a special focus on the voices of Black British women’s experiences. Follow her on Twitter @sianaarrgh For more, visit: www.noflyonthewall.com and online at: www.dontgotheresiana.com
This feature was commissioned and edited by MD’s Editor-at-large Lola Okolosie. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org