Infamous race report neglects key area of inequality: housing

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The recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the UK, or the Sewell Report, was panned both at home and abroad for diminishing the lived experiences of minorities. The report reflects a wider trend of institutional denial.

Released at the end of March, the governmental report came in response to the global Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, it denies the existence of institutional racism in an attempt to reframe the narrative around racial inequality. Instead, it attempts to scapegoat the breakdown of ethnic minority families ‘as one of the main reasons for poor outcomes’ in issues such as educational failure and crime. 

The report also accuses advocates within the community of refusing to accept that things have changed for the better, saying: ‘the historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer’. 

The UN has warned that the report has enabled white supremacy. Experts within the UN described it as ‘“a tone-deaf attempt at rejecting the lived realities of people of African descent and other ethnic minorities in the UK”. Many of the organisations brought onto the commission have distanced themselves from its findings. This includes UK Youth, who have stated that ‘the report has missed a powerful opportunity to acknowledge and reflect the very tangible lived experiences of so many young people across the country’.

Photo by Craig Davis

What about housing? 

The Housing Diversity Network brought together experts to discuss the report. The panelists criticized the reports lack of meaningful analysis on the discrimination and inequalities that persist in the British housing sector. John Perry, former Director of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing remarked: ‘so little of the report was devoted to housing... yet for many of us, housing is a very important part of this debate’. 

BME households are over-represented in statutory homelessness and overcrowding compared to white households. The report mentions overcrowding but fails to mention benefit cap on large families and lack of affordable housing which accounts for this issue. 

Also left unmentioned is the ‘hostile environment’ faced by immigrants and undocumented immigrants in the UK. Under immigration law, 1.3 million people are denied access to public funds, including housing benefits. 4 out of 5 of these people are thought to be from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing.

The housing crisis—how did we get here?

The right to buy scheme in 1979 put social housing stock into the hands of housing associations and registered social landlords. This continues to restrict access to welfare property to those who need it most. Successive governments have further commodified social housing and emboldened the financial sectors influence on the housing market. 

The lack of social housing development and funding means marginalised working class communities become dispossessed. This increases the risk of homelessness and contributes to health and education inequality. 

Photo by Ben Allan

What’s more, governments in recent decades have managed the decline of council estates into disrepair to justify their demolition. In 2019, a report from the Institute of Race Relations, found that all of the London estates that had been demolished were not redeveloped in a way that could house their previous residents or any of the thousands of people on social housing waiting lists. Privately owned luxury apartments are built in their place to appeal to middle-class gentrifiers. The report also explains that austerity measures result in under-resourced local councils having to rely on wealthy newcomers to expand council tax bases and reduce charges on services, 

The quality of life on council estates has been stigmatised by the media and the government. Since the 2011 riots, the lexicon surrounding the issue of ‘sink estates’ took on a racilialised element. In 2016, PM David Cameron wrote: ‘Decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour’. This coded language demonised the communities in these estates. This led to increased social control of inner-city black communities through over-policing and extended police powers.  

The government's tactful re-modelling of UK’s cities has neglected the working class, many of them being from ethnic minorities and immigrant backgrounds, putting the BME housing sector under continuous strain. The prevalence of white majority and commercially orientated housing associations further marginialises the movement for equality and diversity within the sector. 

Among the experts at the Housing Diversity Network panel was Maurice Mcleod from Race on the Agenda. ROTA was set up in 1984 with the aim of empowering BME community organisations, affecting policy and raising awareness. Mcleod offered that the anti-racist voluntary sector should hardly be surprised by the divisive rhetoric within the report. Instead, organisations should continue to work with communities and keep progressing towards equality. 

As for the government, the housing charity Shelter highlighted previous government reports on race and equality where recommendations have yet to be applied. Shelter have stressed that the government should work to bring these recommendations into effect.  

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