By Ali Akbor OBE, Chief Executive of Unity Homes & Enterprise, and Secretary/Treasurer of BME National
The need for BME-led housing associations is sometimes questioned. But the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement is a reminder of why the BME housing sector was born and continues to be necessary. All communities should reap the benefits of positive change as structural disadvantages are tackled and levelling up occurs. All racial disparities are wrong and BME people are not seeking favourable treatment.
The mid-1980s saw a clutch of new associations set-up to address the housing needs of black and minority ethnic communities in some of the most deprived areas of the country. In the intervening decades, the number of BME-led associations has fallen significantly but that
is not because our collective mission has been accomplished.
Instead, some have been absorbed into much bigger associations. This often followed promises that the objectives of the BME sector could be better achieved within larger organisations with greater metaphorical muscle.
The mainstream associations were also incentivised by the regulator of the day to support BME housing needs. But rather than boost black and minority ethnic presence, the mergers saw the influence of the former BME-led associations diluted as their priorities slipped down the policy agenda and their assets were stripped. Community identities, built up over many years, were lost in rebranding.
The coronavirus crisis has opened many societal wounds, some of them disappointingly familiar. A new report published by the Office for National Statistics found that the mortality rate from COVID-19 in the most deprived parts of England has been more than double that
in the least deprived areas.
The analysis comes off the back of a series of studies, most recently from Public Health England, which confirmed that people of BME origin are at much greater risk of contracting coronavirus than those of white British ethnicity. This is partly because BME families often live in overcrowded properties, and there was little new money for genuinely affordable family homes during the austerity years – or since.
The Government has not properly protected BME communities from the particular threat to their health that COVID-19 possesses. And, given the period of economic turmoil that we are now entering, I have little confidence that Ministers will have the vulnerabilities of black and minority ethnic people – who rely so heavily on public services – to the forefront of their minds any time soon.
I do fear that some mainstream housing associations have gone backwards on issues of racial equality, and those that took on BME associations should be re-examining if they have delivered on their promises to them. But the BME sector wants to work with colleagues
throughout the movement in tackling the issues that Black Live Matters have returned to the centre of debate.
We must resolve to step forward and speak up for all tenants and communities we serve – and tackle the inequalities together.