The housing sector has a key role to play in tackling racial inequality in the UK
Before the death of George Floyd in America and the Black Lives Matter campaign that has resounded around the world, COVID-19 was already highlighting just how unequal our society remains. The pandemic has exposed disproportionate rates of transmission and fatalities among certain ethnic groups. The growing levels of disparity that BAME communities face – particularly as we confront an unprecedented economic downturn – have fuelled simmering tensions over racial injustice in the UK.
Enough is enough, and things have to change. But will they?
For housing, there is an opportunity for change. This is long overdue as the system continues to perpetuate disparities and inequality in housing provision and access to BAME communities who are:
- over-represented in insecure private rented sector accommodation;
- more likely to be overcrowded and experience poor housing conditions impacting health;
- three times more likely to be over-represented in the most deprived local authority areas;
- three times more likely than white households to experience homelessness;
- twice more likely to be unemployed.
The UK BAME housing sector has been an undoubted success in fostering BAME leadership and directly meeting the housing needs of thousands of BAME households. It can boast of 66,000 homes with a near £2 billion asset value. Yet it only represents 3% of the total social housing sector and is too small to fully address the current and historic needs of the BAME population.
There is also an uncomfortable truth that some larger players are drifting from their social purpose and many have become quasi-developers dependent on private units and homeownership, at the expense of providing truly affordable housing solutions.
Role for regulation
We need an honest and frank conversation to examine whether the Regulator of Social Housing effectively assesses if all actors make a real contribution to addressing inequalities for BAME communities. The current regulation does not sufficiently challenge and tackle disparities in governance, staffing, procurement and investment that contribute to meeting BAME communities’ needs. It focuses principally on the economic health of providers, irrespective of whether they meet the needs of the very communities they were set up to address.
But then who regulates the regulators and the investors of new funding? Homes England has undergone a massive recruitment drive, which has continued during the lockdown. Yet is anyone internally, within government or externally, asking whether that recruitment has created a culture and workforce that is truly representative of wider society. There seems little data, transparency or scrutiny.
The housing sector has presented a strong case to the government that it can make a significant contribution to the economic recovery post-COVID-19. Any funding settlement must, therefore, address long-standing deficits in delivery across all tenures. This should include older people, those requiring supported housing and BAME communities.
With the vast sums of public funding and the private funds that the sector unlocks, it is time to measure outcomes and ask simple questions. What investment is going directly to meet the housing and support needs of BAME communities which COVID-19 has so vividly exposed?
To achieve parity, the next development prospectuses for Homes England and the Greater London Authority should be top-sliced. These monies should be used to increase housing supply to BAME communities, with specific targets set for delivery which is reported like other key programme areas, i.e. rural delivery, and level of funding on brownfield sites. To address community needs and historic under-provision, this could mean 20%+, and more in London.
Subject to scrutiny
There is a need for greater scrutiny of the use of public land, which is essential to accelerate housing delivery. Homes England’s land hub needs to demonstrate that it addresses inequalities in BAME communities. This should apply to other key programmes such as Home Buy (and First Buy if it proceeds) and the Small Sites Programme. They need to reflect local context: the current thresholds make it virtually impossible for BAME and other associations to bring forward sites that directly meet housing needs.
Pivotal in place-making
Housing associations have a pivotal role to play in local economic and social recovery post-COVID-19. But they also need to address anomalies in neighbourhood management arising from asset disposals by some registered providers. There are too many examples where mainstream associations have disposed of stock and assets in diverse localities and effectively transferred the proceeds into non-BAME localities.
The impact spirals in areas when such properties are bought by private landlords who then maximise lets, creating neighbourhood problems for families resident there. The local community is never consulted but suffers the consequences. This should change and a more robust approach established that ensures ethical property disposals and clear consideration afforded to the impact on the area, for communities and other housing providers (often BAME associations).
Build back better
The need to build more affordable housing is palpable and could kick-start economic recovery. Yet to avoid past mistakes, a concerted effort and plan are needed to address historic inequalities of access and funding, to meet the needs of BAME communities. This has to be the moral duty of the whole sector if it is serious about its sympathy and support for #BlackLivesMatter.
Abdul A Ravat
Vice-Chair, Manningham Housing Association
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