Rosie Lugole, 18, has lived on Regina Road in a tower block in Croydon, south east London, for most of her life. When a leak appeared from the bathroom ceiling a few years ago, her family contacted the council – who owned the block – for help, but they never heard back. As the leak became worse, the family emailed the council, rang them up, and even got Lugole’s school involved to try to get help for the water damage, which was now a safety hazard. Three years later, with still no fix from the council and mould, damp, and mushrooms growing throughout the accommodation, Lugole and her family are still living in a block that’s been dubbed the worst social housing in the UK.
“For three years we’ve had [leaks], and for three years we’ve been ignored,” says Lugole. They’ve never done anything, they’ve never come. When the leak was happening, there was a maggot coming up on the wall. It was disgusting.”
In video footage that went viral, Lugole’s father is shown picking mushrooms off the mould-sodden wall, almost in tears at the state of the flat. Despite the coverage, Lugole says Croydon council have still not fixed the issues. After an independent report into the flats, the council said that it was “totally resolved to addressing the issues found.”
While the issues facing Lugole’s family are extreme, as a Black family living in substandard social housing in the UK, they are not alone. According to the most recent English Housing Survey, overcrowding is currently at its worst ever for both the social housing sector and for private renting. Nine percent of social housing tenants experience overcrowding, the highest it’s been since records began. Black people are more likely to live in social housing, making up 44 percent of social housing tenants.
Why, in a rich democracy like the UK, is race still impacting the search for a secure home?
Inequality and racism in the UK have long impacted opportunities for people of colour. In post-war Britain, desperate for a new workforce, the government introduced the British Nationality Act of 1948, which allowed those from Commonwealth countries to live and work in the UK. When this Windrush Generation arrived to fill jobs like those in the newly launched National Health Service, however, they faced significant racism – encountering signs outside homes like “No Blacks, Dogs, Irish” and rogue landlords overcharging for poor-quality housing. Decades later, this generation would encounter further discrimination as part of the “Windrush Scandal”, after the Home Office lost important immigration paperwork for thousands of citizens. As a result, the Home Office deported or threatened to deport many Black people with the right to live in the UK. Some were refused medical treatment or evicted from their homes.
That 2018 scandal was the result of a growing hostility toward migrants (or those incorrectly considered migrants) in the UK. Five years earlier, in 2012, former Prime Minister and then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a swath of laws known collectively as the Hostile Environment policies, which made it harder for migrants to access basic rights. While these laws don’t explicitly discriminate against Black or Asian people, they disproportionately affect non-EU migrants and therefore disproportionately affect people of colour. No Recourse to Public Funds, for example, stops non-British citizens from accessing welfare support no matter how long they’ve lived here legally or paid tax. Right to Rent, another Hostile Environment policy, penalises landlords if they rent to those without the legal right to stay, making them more likely to discriminate against people they suspect are undocumented.
But the Hostile Environment isn’t the only reason discrimination permeates the housing sector. Even if you’re able to access benefits and legally live in the UK or are a citizen, estate agents and landlords can exclude those using benefits to pay rent, a policy that housing charities say is discriminatory. And finally, even if you’re not a migrant or on benefits, racism still permeates the rental sector, where bias and discrimination are hard to prove.
Housing has been particularly critical this past year when people were stuck inside their homes during numerous lockdowns. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities in the UK, where Bangladeshi people were twice as likely to die from COVID, and the finding that “people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Black Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity,” were 10 to 50 percent more likely to die, was even directly linked to housing.
The modern housing crisis has only exaggerated racism in the sector, making it harder for people like Lugole’s family to secure good housing. Under Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years of Conservative rule, the controversial Right to Buy law saw vast numbers of social housing sold off and never replaced, contributing if not directly fuelling the UK’s housing crisis. Today, with limited social housing, the private sector is now oversubscribed, expensive and under-regulated, and the social housing sector is hard to access and inadequate. Black people, along with those who identify as Asian or from mixed and other minority ethnic backgrounds, often have the least housing rights or access to support – 24 percent of Bangladeshi households, 18 percent of Pakistani households and 16 percent of Black African households experience overcrowding – compared to only 2 percent of white British households.
Mary, who came to the UK from the Caribbean to escape domestic violence, is a victim of this country’s Hostile Environment. Growing up in a former British colony – first in Trinidad and Tobago, then in Saint Vincents and the Grenadines – she had learnt about Thatcher, Queen Victoria, and the understated neoclassical architecture of Buckingham Palace. What surprised her when she arrived in the UK in 2007, then, wasn’t the country’s underwhelming snow or its monarch’s homes, but the people.
“They make you know that you’re Black,” says Mary, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardise a pending immigration application. “They make you know that you are not equal. So they kind of discriminate against you in a very subtle way. I felt like I wasn’t equal, like I was overlooked, in a sense. I was called an immigrant, I was [told] that I didn’t have the right to be here.”
Despite having ancestors from Ireland and Scotland, Mary had no legal right to stay in the UK. Under the UK’s official Hostile Environment policy for – usually non-white – immigrants without leave to remain, Mary wasn’t entitled to work, rent privately, or apply for benefits. Her status meant she could only do cash-in-hand jobs, which left her open to exploitation from employers. Feeling like she had no other choice, she quit her job and then spent a year and a half sleeping rough on the N15 night bus that ran from Trafalgar Square in central London to Romford in the northeast corner of the capital, or living under an external staircase, where she would lay her clothes on the ground for a bed and use her bag as a pillow.
“I think I blanked it out,” says Mary. “My mind was just blank. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was like I was in a trance because… I would have had a mental breakdown on that particular day. It was just too difficult.”
In the UK, Black people are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Though they make up just 3 percent of the total population in England, 14 percent of those registered as homeless are Black.
“Many of the policies that make the housing system tick over are, at least in a secondary way, disproportionately affecting people of colour,” Matt Downie, head of policy for homeless charity Crisis, says. “We also know that the link between homelessness and poverty is absolute. And you’re extremely more likely to be experiencing poverty if you’re Black.”
Whether you understand the complexities of the UK’s housing system or not, it’s clear there is an issue. “Working for a homeless charity, where you walk through a reception every morning that is full of people in that local area who are experiencing homelessness – you see almost no white faces – you can’t escape the fact that this is an issue that affects every population but does discriminate in terms of affecting non-white people more or less. It’s one of those things where we don’t need every single fact to tell us that we’ve got a big problem.”
That “big problem” was never more obvious than in 2017, when a 24-storey council tower in Kensington and Chelsea, London’s richest borough, caught fire in the early hours of the morning. Due to Grenfell Tower’s illegal flammable cladding, the fire spread at an alarming speed, resulting in the deaths of at least 72 people and injuring 70. Despite Grenfell’s residents raiding safety concerns, the majority of whom were ethnic minorities, fire safety issues were not dealt with before the tragedy. An ongoing public inquiry into the tragedy revealed that the borough’s head of housing had failed to check with the building’s management team whether issues flagged by London Fire Brigade, such as a lack of fire doors, were dealt with. Later, it emerged that the council responsible for the building, Kensington and Chelsea, received £55 million in rent from the tenants but had only spent £40 million on council housing. In 2014, three years before the fire, the council had handed back £100 to residents in the top band for council tax after reporting a surplus. Housing for the less wealthy was not a priority.
It’s not just structural issues that affect people of colour in the UK. Direct racism and discrimination can affect access to housing, such as in the rental sector, where it’s easy for landlords or estate agents to discriminate, despite it being illegal. A 2013 BBC investigation discovered 10 estate agents in north west London who were willing to stop Black people from letting a flat after the organisation sent an actor to pose as a discriminatory landlord. Estate agents were willing to tell potential Black tenants that someone had already rented the property, or insincerely promise to call them back about the home.
Instances of racial profiling can take place on online letting spaces like Spare Room, a website that advertises rooms to tenants in the UK. As the profile on the website comes with photos attached, homeowners can discriminate when people apply to view rooms, despite the website explicitly stating that it’s illegal to do so.
Lola, a Black woman based in south London, has struggled with renting in the past.
“I was on SpareRoom, and on SpareRoom you use your picture,” says Lola, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid issues when letting in the future. “I found a nice place for two people posted maybe two days before. I messaged just a very standard message, like, ‘Hey, is the room available?’ with a little bit about me, and no reply.”
Lola thought nothing of this until she saw the listing for the room appear on a Facebook group advertising rooms in south east London the following day. She sent another message, but again received no response. Starting to grow suspicious, she asked her white housemate to contact the person advertising the room. Her housemate was able to set up a call with the person advertising the room with little issue. Another white friend of Lola’s also reached out about the room and received a reply.
“Everyone but me got a reply,” says Lola.
Lola also feels estate agents treat her slightly differently when they assume she is less likely to afford a nicer room. “I feel like [I get] showed a lot of crap if I don’t go with the people I’m gonna live with, who are often a range of races.”
In an emailed statement, Matt Hutchinson, SpareRoom director, said: “SpareRoom is firmly committed to equal opportunities and our moderation team monitor all ads to make sure there’s nothing discriminatory in them. We investigate every report of discrimination we receive and, if we find anyone to be acting in a discriminatory way, either in ads or in the messages they send, we remove them.”
“Discrimination is rife in the private rented sector with many landlords and letting agents turning away people who depend on benefits to pay their rent,” Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director of Generation Rent, told VICE World News. “We should also remember that the wider problems in the rental market disproportionately affect people of colour, who are more likely to rent from private landlords, receive housing benefit, face eviction, and live in overcrowded conditions, than the wider population.”
Mary now lives in temporary accommodation thanks to the support of charities like St Mungos and Crisis, but she’s still fighting for legal immigration status. Although she tries to keep positive, she’s angry about the situation she’s faced.
“The law in this country is completely messed up,” she says. “They don’t acknowledge immigrants. They aren’t aware of what they have done for this country, what our forefathers have done. You took people from a different place and worked them until they died. Do you not have a little remorse?”
Despite the difficulties she’s faced, she’s found solace in writing poetry and acting, something she’s been able to do thanks to courses offered by Crisis.
“Poetry is literally a lifesaver,” she says. “I try to keep a light out. Even though it’s all dark. I try to have a positive outlook because it can save my life.”