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Comment: Why we still need a BME housing sector

Black and minority ethnic housing associations must return to their roots to provide support to local communities, says Tony Soares

Black and minority ethnic housing associations were set up in the late 1970s and 1980s in response to a growing housing crisis across the UK. They flourished under the first two BME housing strategies promoted by the Housing Corporation, but by the 2000s they began to fade. One after another they merged willingly or were forced into larger mainstream associations, abandoning entirely their identities as BME organisations.

Only a handful remain as independent associations and most of them are very small, miniscule compared to the big boys of social housing, a sector which has grown rapidly under both Conservative and Labour governments as council housing was replaced.

Do we still need them? More then ever, but only if they can revert to the roles they assumed when they were first set up: a tradition of self help among new immigrant communities, which brought about benefits from community centres to credit unions.

We still need a BME housing sector, argues Tony Soares. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

No disadvantage

BME communities are not disadvantaged. I detest the common usage of BME communities as a ‘problem’. We see ethnic minorities classed in the same ‘disadvantaged’ group together with women, gay and disabled people. People in the ethnic minority community resent such lumping together; they see it as patronising and offensive. Many people in these communities are reasonably well off, some very well off. They may work as professionals or run businesses, and some send their children to private schools.

However the BME community faces some serious problems, ranging from gun and knife crime to fundamentalist radicalisation of young religious believers. Just like the wider population, they affect tiny sections of the community. Who would be better at tackling these issues? Not the big bureaucratic government, national or local, and certainly not the developer or lettings companies that mainstream housing associations have become. They are totally unsuited to that role.

Back to basics

Small community-based local housing providers, if they remain reasonably small (between 1,000 and 5,000 dwellings) and local, will have the organisation and capacity to tackle the issues at a local level identifying local community leaders/mentors and involving the rest of the community particularly the richer people in their remedial projects.

There are already examples of this type of effort. Shian Housing Association, a community-based housing association in Hackney, manages the Makeda Weaver project which resettles young black men who are at risk of drifting into crime and facing jail. Karin Housing Association in Tower Hamlets tackles a number of issues specific to the Somali community, providing healthy eating projects and a cultural integration programme.

When BME associations were first established they were viewed with some suspicion, accused of promoting separatism, and came under heavy regulatory pressure. In their desire to remain on good terms they lost their link to local communities; apart from their names there was little left to distinguish them.

The BME sector was created to address the very specific issues of the 1970s and 80s: youth homelessness, single parenthood among young women, and the need for culturally sensitive housing for the elderly. If they are allowed to revert back to this very local role, they have an exciting future.

Tony Soares is a housing consultant. This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian’s Housing Network blog.

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