Housing and racism go hand-in-hand. How a society decides who lives where is the product of deliberate policy, not happenstance. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have brought a welcome but overdue period of reflection on racism, both in the US and in the UK. But we still have a long way to go, as proved by the UK government’s recent report denying the existence of structural discrimination. One of the disparities the report glossed over was housing, and this is a common failing.
Richard Rothstein described in The Color of Law how government housing policy segregated America. For decades, “red lining” and other legal devices excluded people of colour from certain places, leaving an indelible mark on US cities. These enduring patterns often underscore racist violence, as they did in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.
Racism in housing policy may be less stark in the UK, but it still exists and is deadly. Many have asked if the Grenfell atrocity would have happened if the residents had been less black and less working class. Such appalling incidents result from a much wider system that erects barriers against people who find it hard to compete in the increasingly brutal housing market which the government spends billions of pounds subsidizing.
As John Perry of the Institute of Housing shows, 79% of State spending on housing goes to the private market, de facto handouts to house builders, an industry dominated by wealthy white men. In the March 2021 budget, while black and Asian people were disproportionately dying from COVID, the UK government committed £1.6 billion for an extended stamp duty holiday and an unquantified figure for underwriting 95% mortgages, based on the previous Help to Buy scheme that cost £2.3 billion. These measures may help the relatively few able to raise the deposit to buy, but they help the development industry a lot more. Immediately after the budget, shares of the big housebuilders shot up.
This is covert institutional racism. According to the government’s own figures, white British households are far more likely to own their own home than all non-white ethnic minority households combined. Because home ownership has become such a huge predictor and accumulator of wealth, loading the housing market with massive government subsidies perpetuates and deepens social inequality. Those most likely to benefit from today’s biased housing policies are probably the white descendants of those who benefited from yesterday’s. The government has never carried an equality impact assessment on its policy of subsidizing home ownership.
Conversely, black and Asian people are far more likely to live in, or need, social rented housing, which has been starved of investment for decades and has also been the target of political and media stigmatization, sometimes with racist undertones. Moreover, communities of colour are more likely to be displaced by the demolition of council estates and other so-called regeneration projects that accelerated the socio-ethnic re-engineering of inner-cities, at least until the pandemic struck. Cities in the UK are reproducing the pattern of those in other countries, where the poor and non-white are consigned to the periphery. Where housing is more affordable, but where poverty and social alienation are widespread.
With home ownership and social housing unattainable, people from ethnic minorities are more likely to live in the under-regulated, super-exploitative, private rented sector. This is a similar experience to the earlier generations of immigrants, like the Windrush generation. Facing signs reading “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” and the racist housing allocation policies of local councils, many were left to the mercy of the likes of Peter Rachman. In 2017, Fergus Wilson, who, thanks to another feature of warped government housing policy, has accumulated hundreds of Buy-to-Let homes, stated he wouldn’t rent to Asian tenants “because of the curry smell”. But this wasn’t an isolated episode, it follows a long history of racist landlordism, including the “No DSS” restrictions of letting agents who, as the BBC has reported, “are prepared to discriminate against would-be tenants on the grounds of race”.
Like the victims of the Windrush scandal, black and Asian people have had to fight for their right to be housed in the UK. In the 1970s, members of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets began a squatting movement in defiance of the doors that were closed against them (ironically, some of the empty Georgian homes they occupied in Spitalfields are now valued at millions of pounds). In that period, the local authority was twice found guilty by the Commission for Racial Equality of operating a discriminatory policy for access to council housing, but it was not the only guilty local authority. In an effort to circumvent racist housing policies, a network of small, independent housing associations were formed by black and Asian communities around the UK. Sadly, many of these have been swallowed-up by bigger, corporate-minded, social landlords and have lost their distinctive identity. Another symptom of a housing system weighted in favour of money, power and the white-dominated political establishment.
COVID has compounded ingrained housing inequality. Overcrowding, disrepair, high rents and low wages create a Victorian petri dish for contagion. While these linked problems now threaten many people, they disproportionately affect black and Asian households, with this reflected in high COVID infection and death rates. The London borough with the most overcrowding, the longest housing waiting list and one of the biggest black and Asian populations – Newham – also has one of the highest COVID mortality rates, leading one local politician to describe coronavirus as “a housing disease”. Almost identical patterns have been observed in other parts of the UK and throughout the world.
The pandemic is an opportunity for change. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding reform of policing and acknowledgment of historic abuses, this is also a moment to push for a shift in housing policy in a more humane, inclusive direction. But the UK government is continuing the failed policies of the past. The ideological obsession with home ownership and an increasing reliance on the speculative housing market to refloat the economy is creating the conditions for a perpetual housing crisis that will continue to widen the socio-ethnic cracks in our society. Using billions of pounds to underwrite mortgages is a latter-day replica of the US government’s post-war policy of subsidizing home ownership for ex-servicemen, provided they were white. This produced classic monochrome suburbs like Levittown, where black people were excluded, or had to confront racist violence to demand equality of place.
As in post-war America, the far-right in the UK continues to exploit housing in furtherance of its white supremacist agenda. It should never be forgotten that in 1964 the Tory Party fought an election in the West Midlands under the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. When the British National Party (BNP) won its first election on the Isle of Dogs in 1993, it explicitly linked anger with the shortage of council housing to immigration, creating a diversion from the pro-developer activities of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), which was using huge sums of public money to build luxury private apartments. The false narrative that black and Asian people get preferential housing treatment, when in fact, they are far more likely to be poorly housed or homeless, continues to be used by cynical politicians and reverberated through the Brexit debate to the disillusionment of voters, particularly in the so-called Red Wall seats. The Labour Party too has done little to either directly challenge institutional housing racism or demand homes for all through a system of transparent government investment and democratic accountability.
As one of the few comprehensive reports on this subject concludes: “Four decades of struggle by Black and Minority Ethnic communities, bolstered by legislation, statutory and regulatory codes from the 1960s onwards, have failed to confront adequately and systematically racial disadvantage and discrimination in housing”. Without urgent government action, this picture will get worse.
There is currently a ticking time bomb of evictions, predominantly threatening precarious private tenants who, through no fault of their own, have lost income during the pandemic. The existing ban on evictions expired at the end of May and threatens to leave hundreds of thousands at risk of homelessness. A government housing minister has described the resumption of evictions as part of “getting back to normal”. Previous eviction moratoriums have been extended in the face of vociferous campaigns, but this just delays the underlying problem. The only solution is for COVID rent arrears to be written-off for tenants who can’t afford them, with government support for landlords for whom this causes genuine hardship (although we must bear in mind the significant public subsidies private landlords already receive).
Ultimately, we will never have a society free of racism without a housing system free of racism. It is no accident that Dr Martin Luther King Jr. devoted some of his latter campaigns specifically to confronting housing discrimination. His words to housing campaigners in Chicago in 1966 echo:
“We are here today because we are tired. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums…we are tired of having to pay a median rent of $97 dollars a month in Lawndale for four rooms while whites living in South Deering pay $73 a month for five rooms. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children”.
Unlike the UK government, Dr King saw the structural racism within the prevailing housing system, but he also saw that such discrimination afflicted society as a whole, creating divisions that only serve the interests of exploitative landlords and property developers who profit from housing need.
The United Nations recognises a decent home as a universal human right, but neither charity, nor our current economic system are capable of delivering it. That will only come with political action to defund developers and stop treating housing as a commodity and a tool for exclusion, profit and exploitation.
Glyn Robbins has worked in, written about and campaigned on housing for 30 years. He is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE and 2020/21 Fulbright Scholar.