Black History Month is about looking to and understanding the past to improve the lives of black people in the UK in the years to come. So, before I focus on the present, I want to go back some 70 years. In the 1950s, an activist and philanthropist named Lady Molly Huggins set up the Metropolitan Coloured People’s Housing Association to provide quality, affordable housing for London’s Caribbean Community. This came at a time when political parties routinely used racist messaging to try and win votes, when signs like the infamous No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish hung aggressively in many private landlord windows and the majority of black people lived in poor, overcrowded conditions.
As Martin Luther King famously said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” By the 1980s many black people were still living in poor conditions as well as dealing with high unemployment and, to put it mildly, poor policing practices. This anger and resentment bubbled over, leading to a series of race riots in places like Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth. Out of the rubble of these, the Housing Corporation (the funding body at the time) launched an ambitious BME Housing Strategy. At the same time, the Ekaya Housing Association, of which I am now CEO, was formed in Brixton by four local activists.
I believe that specialist BME housing providers, like Ekaya, are more than just landlords. We go beyond the delivery of good quality, affordable housing. We are advocates for our communities, giving people opportunities, while, due to sharing similar experiences, the relationship between landlord and tenant often goes beyond the contractual, delivering culturally sensitive services and giving people the stability to progress. We also give opportunities to people from BAME backgrounds, helping social housing providers become more representative of the people they serve.
The untrained eye might think that many of the more overt forms of racism that characterised the second part of the 20th century have disappeared today. But events of the last few years have shown clearly how important it still is to have a strong BME housing sector.
The murder of George Floyd by an Atlanta Policeman rightly led to uproar across the world, with multiple mass protests in the UK. Meanwhile, in the UK black communities have had to contend issues such as the Windrush scandal, which caused huge stress for many families with roots in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, statistics show that black Britons are still disproportionately affected by the housing crisis. The latest statutory homelessness statistics show that people who identify as black were the most over represented group when applying for homelessness support, comprising 9.7% of those owed a homelessness duty despite representing just 3.5% of the overall population. In London, the issue is even more acute, with people who identify as Black making up over 30% of homeless applications despite being only 12.5% of the overall population.
As well as the above, multiple studies have shown how the impact pf the pandemic has also been disproportionately experienced by people of a BAME background. That’s why I am a strong believer in working in partnership with other communities, for example our current project working alongside the Bangla Housing Association providing COVID advice for Bangladeshi Community in Tower Hamlets and Hackney.
Elsewhere, the BME London Landlords (a group of BME led Housing Associations) are positioning themselves as a key strategic partnership body to work with The Mayor and the Greater London Authority, including aiming to complete 600 new homes by 2024. We are also planning to launch an Anti-Racism campaign with a goal to get housing organisations to adopt a clear anti-racism stance, backed up with action plans to show an active and conscious effort to dismantle structures that perpetuates racism.
When I reflect on the events of the past few years, from George Floyd to the impact of the pandemic and everything in between, it only solidifies my belief that the work of BME housing sector - giving a voice to communities, giving people the tools to live with dignity and the capacity to hope - is as relevant today as it was when built out of the riots forty years ago.