After the Second World War, Britain’s changing social circumstances, combined with Europe’s displaced populations, meant the country’s housing association movement was confronted with a challenge it had never before faced.
The arrival of 20,000 Hungarian refugees onto Britain’s shores put a strain on housing waiting lists. The Women’s Voluntary Services Housing Association and the British Council for Aid to Refugees Housing Society stepped in to assist with the post-war influx of refugees, and many more organisations mobilised to help those fleeing war-torn and politically unstable European states.
But it was the arrival of West Indian immigrants that altered the course of housing associations and the ethnic composition of British society. Between 1948 and 1970 nearly half a million West Indians came to live in Britain. Some sought better opportunities for themselves and their children, many were recruited by the British government to address the shortfall of workers on the transport system, postal service and hospitals, while others were returning soldiers who fought for Britain during the war.
What met the newly-arrived immigrants in terms of housing was grim. At the time many local authorities required a period of residency before being allowed onto housing waiting lists, with some setting a three-year minimum stay in Britain. This forced many into the private-rented sector in inner-city areas and into the arms of slum landlords, who greeted their new tenants with inhumane living conditions in poor, dilapidated neighbourhoods.
Peter Rachman, the most notorious landlord of that era, exploited fully the business opportunity presented by the “no coloureds, no Irish, no dogs” policy common among property owners at the time. Some argue that were it not for Rachman, scores of immigrants would have been homeless. Nevertheless, his flats were grossly over-crowded with hundreds of West Indian families who, if unable to pay their rent on time, would be confronted by dogs and promptly evicted. Today the term “Rachmanism” is synonymous with unscrupulous, greedy landlords.
Meg Merrylees, a veteran campaigner in the housing association movement and secretary of the National Federation of Housing Associations (today’s National Housing Federation) wrote in The Times Weekly Review in December 1958:
“We can and must all do something, and the burden that falls upon our particular shoulders is that of helping to ease the housing situation. The answer, “but our hands are full with our own housing problems” is not acceptable. The housing of immigrants is our problem, because anti-racialism is a germ that, festering inward, ultimately kills the social system that harbours it.”
Housing associations specially created to help immigrants began to emerge. Aggrey Housing Limited appeared in Leeds in 1955, closely followed by the Birmingham Friendship Housing Association, the Bath Voluntary Association for Commonwealth Housing, Nottingham Coloured People’s Housing Society and London’s Tredegar Housing Association. The Rachman scandal, which ended with his death in 1962, also inspired the creation of Shelter and Notting Hill Housing Trust.
Despite gradual improvements to housing in the 70s and 80s, the situation for many immigrant families and their descendants was still unacceptable. Together with daily occurrences of discrimination and bigotry, encouraged by many of the racist groups that were active at that time, a toxic mix of resentment and frustration grew among black and minority ethnic (BME) communities across the country. Many attribute the British government’s lack of willingness to address these problems as a defining factor as to why race riots erupted in England in the 1980s.
The government reacted by explicitly supporting the development of BME housing associations, targeting funding to black-led providers through the work of the Housing Corporation.
In 1984 the manager of a Reading hostel for young black people, Louis Julienne, co-founded the Federation of Black Housing Organisations (FBHO), an umbrella body for BME housing associations that represented the sector and lobbied government on its behalf. In 1986 the FBHO set in motion the first black housing strategy and over the next few years about 40 BME housing associations were founded.
Larger housing associations were, because of regulatory and funding conditions, encouraged to work in partnership with BME housing associations. Local authorities soon followed, making involvement with BME housing associations mandatory for other associations wishing to develop.
The post-war West Indian migration also marked the beginning of a period of urban change which, following successive migratory waves, culminated in the richly diverse ethnic tapestry seen today in Britain’s towns and cities. By the mid-90s the BME housing landscape spread to include organisations offering culturally specific housing for, among others, African-Caribbean, Asian, Chinese, Irish, Jewish, Kurdish, Tamil and Vietnamese tenants.
As with the early BME housing associations, many were established to address the clear and obvious disadvantage facing some communities in accessing adequate accommodation. In reality they have achieved that and much more: over the decades they played a pioneering role in British society, pushing into the mainstream issues of race and equality. They have irrevocably changed the housing landscape.
Now catering for tenants of all backgrounds, not exclusively for BME tenants, BME housing associations, as well as being advocates for anti-racism and inclusion, act as vehicles for neighbourhood regeneration and community cohesion.
In 2008 the FBHO closed due to funding difficulties, but another representative body, BMENational, was swiftly created only a year later. BMENational continues to build on the foundations laid by the FBHO, providing a consultative platform for BME housing issues, and continuing to promote the needs and aspirations of BME communities through helping the establishment of successful, vibrant and integrated communities.