“For this government, race has fallen off the agenda”: David Lammy on bias in Britain’s housing sector

The Labour MP for Tottenham and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on racism discusses how where someone lives can affect their life chances.

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The government’s race disparity audit, published in October last year, aimed to “examine how people from different backgrounds are treated across different areas”, including housing, health, education, employment and the criminal justice system. Damian Green, the former First Secretary of State, wrote in the report’s foreword that “how far you go in life should be based on your talent and how hard you work.” The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, doubts the sincerity of this statement. “For this government,” he says, “race has fallen off the agenda.”

And statistics from the housing sector suggest that Lammy may have a point. In the United Kingdom, black people are much less likely to be homeowners than white people – just 32.3 per cent of people of African or Caribbean ethnicity are homeowners, compared to 50.6 per cent of people of white ethnicity. “I think racial bias and social prejudice must be factors [in housing],” Lammy says, “as they are in all walks of life. We know that outcomes for certain ethnic minorities in education are still a work in progress. And we know that there are different outcomes for ethnic minorities in health. It has to be the case, then, when one in three instances of homelessness, comes from an ethnic minority background, that there have to be real issues for ethnic minorities in housing.”

There is evidence that housing conditions in both the public and private sectors are worse for ethnic minorities. Ethnic minority households, the audit found, are “more likely to live in overcrowded, inadequate or fuel-poor housing” than white people. One in six ethnic minority families face a “category one hazard” in their homes, which is defined as an immediate threat to physical wellbeing. Category one hazards include mould, damp, exposed wiring and vermin infestation. “One of the reasons I spend a lot of my time talking about housing,” Lammy says, “is that it’s very clear that you could do be doing very well at a comprehensive [school] with a super head teacher and all the rest of it, but if you are going back home to overcrowded, cramped, damp or decrepit housing, then it’s going to harm your life outcomes.”

Meanwhile, research by Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford, found that “the majority of children living above the fourth floor in blocks of flats in England are black or Asian”. Living higher up, Nadine El-Enany argued in a blog for Verso, carries significant safety risks because people would have “limited access to escape routes” in the instance of a fire, especially when lift use is actively discouraged.

Consider, for example, that of the 80 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, over 83 per cent lived higher than the building’s tenth floor. And Lammy highlights that living high up can also have an “impact on a person’s capacity to integrate with their communities. I overwhelmingly believe in mixed communities and the government has a responsibility in social housing to create them. I don’t believe that ghettos or sink areas, with a predominance of one community, are in the public interest.”

For Lammy, born in north London in 1972 to Guyanese migrant parents, the “policy focus around social mobility in relation to race and class” has largely “centred on education, without appreciating the role of housing. It is even more the case now in the UK, that with the collapse of social housing – we are not building enough, or building it well enough – and the collapse of home ownership in the context of the current economy, that there is an opportunity for bias.”

So, what are the reasons for the “disproportionalities”, as Lammy terms them, in ethnic minorities’ experiences of housing? For one, Lammy describes a “representation deficit” that is not “commensurate to the population” in the make-up of housing associations. Figures from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2015 confirmed that on average just seven per cent of senior staff at mainstream housing associations came from ethnic minority backgrounds, even in areas with higher ethnic minority populations, such as the borough of Lambeth in south London.

While Lammy stops short of suggesting that a lack of diversity in housing associations directly correlates to decision-marking bias in the distribution of lettings, he is sure that “something isn’t working. Hundreds of thousands of decisions are being made every day, and we need to prevent any trace of bias. We do have race relations legislation in the UK. We do have regulatory bodies and they have a responsibility to do their job. Local authorities do need to be subjected to the law, and that law needs to be properly upheld.”

Too often, Lammy argues, the voices of those living in social housing are not heard – an issue that could be exacerbated within ethnic minority communities. The Grenfell Tower disaster, he says, “demonstrated that, and the fact that, as we speak, there are still tower blocks and estates with combustible cladding is unacceptable. And it is unacceptable that there are discrepancies for ethnic minority communities. What came out of Grenfell at the time was the indifference with which the leadership of the local authority regarded the tenants.” Of the 80 victims of the fire, at least 60, Lammy points out, were not white.

Many of the residents of Grenfell Tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of a fire in the months before the fatal blaze, including the placement of boilers and gas pipes, the absence of a building-wide fire alarm or sprinkler system, and combustible cladding. But residents said that their concerns had fallen deaf ears at the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (KCTMO) and the borough council. Lammy sighs. “I know from direct, personal experience, when you are speaking English, perhaps as a second language, and when there is a culture where your immigration status is constantly questioned, then you are going to have problems. You are made out to be something totally other and the narrative is that you are living off the state. This is something that ethnic minorities experience every day and it’s extremely easy for tenant management organisations to overlook your concerns. That can have a knock-on effect on the quality and safety of housing that you’re living in.”

But Lammy says that “race-blind” application processes, of the sort that have been used for some job opportunities and suggested for university admissions, are too “generalised” to be transferred
to mortgage or letting decisions. “I think it [housing] requires a lot more careful scrutiny. What I would prefer is more accountability, oversight, regulation, regular audits and the ability to challenge decisions that we don’t think are quite right.”

Lammy says levels of public sympathy for ethnic minorities in the UK are low, and that “more people seem to be asking why they are in the country in the first place, rather than whether they are being treated fairly or not.” According to a study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, immigration is “unpopular” among UK voters, with around 75 per cent in favour of tighter border control. Lammy sees this as a result of “ten years of a government that has not prioritised race issues.”

What does he hope can change? What will help to provide ethnic minorities with a better housing experience? Lammy says he wants to see more support for “racial equality councils that can monitor this [housing decisions] at a local level”, for “the equality laws that already exist to actually be upheld”, and for the government to “abandon austerity, which has onset much of the social housing problem in the first place”. Lammy shrugs. “For me, that’s obvious.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.