Why are people of colour disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis?

Why are people of colour disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis?

It is a sad truth that people of colour are disproportionately affected by the housing emergency. Every eight minutes, a person who is Black, Asian or from another minority ­­ethnic background (BAME) becomes homeless or is threatened with homelessness.[i] People ­­­­­of colour are more likely to be homeless, live in deprived neighbourhoods, and be living in poor quality homes.

We need to have an honest conversation about why this is. To do this, we must understand the complex history, structures, policies, and practices that have contributed to racial inequality. We must also recognise how this varies between different ethnicities/races, and across different other characteristics – including gender and class. In our blog, we established our goal to actively embed anti-racism within our organisation. We’re not there yet, but we’re learning. Within the housing sector and beyond, we’re keen to contribute to the conversation about racial inequality, and to learn from our peers so we can all do better work and better support the people we serve. 

To make a start, we must understand the extent of the problem. Latest figures show that 31% of people who are statutorily homeless in England and Wales are Black (14%), Asian (9%), from another Mixed ethnic background (4%) or from the Other ethnic group (4%) – even though, collectively, they make up just 14% of the population.[ii] Why is this?

Structural racism and individual prejudice

There isn’t a simple answer. But a key issue is that historically, people of colour have faced significant prejudice in Britain, impacting their ability to access safe, secure and affordable housing.[iii] This prejudice has its roots in our imperial history. From the 1940s, the empire was declining and migration from former colonies was accelerated in the wake of the Second World War. But on arrival in the UK, many migrants were refused jobs and housing or excluded from social housing.[iv] They were forced to take lower-paid jobs and live in the poorest quality rented accommodation – a situation which was made worse by the prevalent and overt discrimination of landlords (as illustrated by the oft-cited example of ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ signs). This left many migrants having to resort to letting from unscrupulous landlords, forced to live in poor conditions. And forced to suffer harassment from landlords like the notorious Peter Rachman.[v] This historical discrimination is the source of much of the racial inequality we see in housing today.

There is huge variation between different ethnic groups, but people of colour are in general more likely to live in more deprived neighbourhoods than White households. Though undoubtedly the result of many factors, these statistics have roots in structural racism and individual prejudice.

Historically, institutional and interpersonal discrimination by letting agents and housing officers saw BAME households more likely to be offered poorer quality homes and ‘steered’ towards particular neighbourhoods. Many of these areas – which were already run down – haven’t seen the investment they need, and have declined further. This have been compounded by more recent policies, such as the ‘dispersal’ of asylum seekers to low-demand areas. In turn, people of colour have been blamed or ‘othered’  for ‘creating’ these environments, further spreading racial prejudice. We have seen this recently in some of the reactions to spikes in coronavirus cases in Leicester, with Muslim communities being blamed for spreading the virus.

As this shows, inequalities caused by historic injustices persist and can change shape over time. To begin to tackle inequalities in housing, we must recognise that they have been baked into our housing system by a long history of discriminatory policy and practice. It will take much more than just ending those policies to undo their impacts.

How immigration controls impact housing

Today, these historic practices are expressed in insidious and more overt ways. For years, immigration has been a key policy area in which institutionally racist practices persist. In Britain, immigration controls are designed to principally target a ‘global poor’ in a way that closely corresponds with people who come from ‘former colonies’ and therefore people of colour.[vi] So although White migrants can be affected by immigration controls, it is people of colour who are disproportionately impacted because of the way immigration controls are set up. Some of these immigration controls directly use denial of housing rights to create a ‘hostile environment’, such as the Right to Rent.

This country’s immigration controls are increasingly targeted at asylum seekers from African and Middle Eastern countries – reflecting a narrower, more racialised view of immigration in our society. As the government tries to create a ‘hostile environment’, it has introduced more and more checks in our housing and welfare systems in the name of immigration control.

One example of these immigration controls is Right to Rent checks, a policy which means that private landlords and letting agencies must carry out immigration checks before they grant a tenancy. This policy can make it especially difficult for migrants and British people of colour without passports to rent privately. Research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) in 2017 backs this up. Its research found that over half of landlords (51%) were less likely to consider renting to foreign nationals from outside of the EU because of the Right to Rent scheme. In a mystery shopping exercise, the same research found that people from BAME backgrounds were 14% more likely to receive a negative response from a landlord compared to White British private renters.

Locked out of renting privately, a disproportionate number of people of colour may then have to turn to their local council for support.[vii] But another policy may prevent some from being able to rely on their local authority for support – the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy.

Removing the safety net

This policy prohibits migrants with time-limited leave to remain in the UK (visas that allow you to enter and stay in the UK for a specified period of time) and those who do not have a regularised immigration status from accessing statutory homelessness assistance from their council. It also bars them from accessing most welfare benefits, including Universal Credit and Discretionary Housing Payments. So even if they can manage to find a home, if they are unable to work (such as because of lockdowns) they’re not able to pay the rent.

This means many migrants have no safety net and nowhere to turn for support, meaning they’re more likely to be pushed into homelessness and destitution. Research shows that many people with NRPF are forced to skip meals or rely on food banks and face spiralling debt. They’re also at higher risk of exploitation and abuse. People of colour are disproportionately impacted.[viii] As we said in a recent blog to mark International Migrants Day, NRPF is having – and will continue to have – catastrophic consequences for many thousands of families, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Taken together, historic and existing discriminatory policies and practices make our housing system inequitable and unequal. There is a lot of work to do to understand, unpack and undo years of systemic racism. At Shelter, we’re just getting started. We are calling on the government to end racist policies and practices that are pushing migrants and people of colour towards bad housing and homelessness. As a first step, we’re joining with organisations such as Project 17, JCWI and NACCOM to demand that the government ends the NRPF condition and Right to Rent checks.


[i] https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_release/black_people_are_more_than_three_times_as_likely_to_experience_homelessness

[ii] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/housing/homelessness/statutory-homelessness/latest Note that ethnicity is unknown for 6% of homeless households.

[iii] https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/oms/by-era/1900%E2%80%932000 and http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/immigration.htm

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/03/housing-crisis-why-worse-for-black-families-social-housing

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/03/housing-crisis-why-worse-for-black-families-social-housing

[vi] For further discussion of the relationship between borders, race and racism see L. De Noronha. 2020. Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of deportation to Jamaica.

[viii] See: M. O’Neill, U. Erel, E. Kaptani & T. Reynolds. Borders, risk and belonging: Challenges for arts-based research in understanding the lives of women asylum seekers and migrants ‘at the borders of humanity’

J. Price & S. Spencer. Safeguarding children from destitution: Local authority responses to families with ‘no recourse to public funds’