Racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Photo: Getty
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Does London's housing industry have a problem with race?

The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Last month, a major housing developer in south east London faced complaints from local residents that not enough white faces were being shown on their advertising hoardings – for their shiny riverside apartments selling for up to £800,000.

The complainants pointed to several prominent hoardings which featured people one can reasonably presume were the desired target owner-occupier – white Caucasian young professionals. The developer has since disputed the residents disgruntlement – saying that other hoardings around the site used black and Asian faces. These were, however, less prominently positioned.

Having spoken to those who complained, it's clear that regardless of whether the firm's marketing was racially biased, the issue had touched a nerve.

There was a belief that housing developers in south east London wanted to attract wealthier white professionals, at the expense of local ethnic minorities – who have often lived in the area for longer and in some cases account for half the local population. They see the slew of hipster cafes, mahogany coated wine bars and rising house prices as a gentrification process inextricably entwined with race economics.

It's a gripe I experienced when living in Brixton, south London, a few years ago. I'm a white “young professional” – and had moved to the area midway through its extraordinary gentrification process. One observation of race could be seen on the bus down Brixton Hill, to the Tube station, where most of the white passengers off-loaded and jumped on the Underground, while black and Asian passengers mainly stayed on the bus, heading for central London. Underground tickets in London are roughly twice as expensive as buses, and it was an unsettling and embarrassing demonstration of how important race still is in determining income inequality. Black Caribbean Londoners are 50 per cent more likely than white Londoners to come from low-income households, while black Africans are more likely.

In 2013, an investigation by the BBC discovered letting agents in London were quietly conspiring to ensure black tenants weren't offered leases, on request from racist landlords. When approached by black tenants, the agents would simply pretend the flat had already been let, or promise to call them back – but never following through. A year previously, the BBC had uncovered numerous private advertisements for flats which asked for “Asian only” or “Indian only” tenants, demonstrating that racism can “flow both ways.” In 2009, the BBC found that letting agents in Lincolnshire had been excluding migrant workers at the request of landlords

The legislative framework is also muddled. Discrimination on the grounds of colour or nationality is technically allowed if someone is taking in a lodger in small premises, or if an owner-occupier is selling their home privately.

When it comes to social housing, there is, despite what the far right claim, little to suggest that immigrants or racial minorities are any more likely to make it off the 2m strong waiting list and into a council house.

But black and ethnic minority (BAME) housing associations have faded from public life. Established in the Seventies and Eighties, they have since largely been assimilated into larger associations, and lost their specialised identity. It has long been argued these groups promote racial separation, which in some part is true – but there is no denying that racial minorities in the UK have specific social problems that might be better addressed by close support from housing associations, not big government.

Any actual or perceived element of racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Some have attributed the Ferguson riots last year to poorly formulated housing policy that came about in the mid twentieth century. On the other side, developing housing policy which specifically addresses income inequalities between ethnic groups can have a pronounced and positive effect on community cohesion. The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, with so many moving parts of such varying scale, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war