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Friday, 18th April 2014

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Britain's black housing movement in crisis

Ujima, the title of Britain's largest black-led housing association, is a word from the Swahili language; it means, 'working together'. Unfortunately, things are now falling apart.

What began as a dispute between Ujima and the industry regulator has escalated into a crisis that threatens to destroy the entire black and minority ethnic housing sector.

The bare facts are straightforward. For several years Ujima had been pursuing a rapid expansion programme, buying up housing stock on the open market and from other social landlords. The acquisitions had been funded mainly by loans, which, in theory at least, were to be serviced from rental income. Everything on the estates looked rosy until the theory hit the buffers of financial reality; rental income was insufficient to cover capital expenditure. And when in the autumn of this year Barclays Bank turned down a request for a £120m refinancing and development loan, Ujima found itself up a cash-flow creek without a financial paddle.

Housing Associations (HAs) create and occupy a space between state provision and the pure capitalist market. They began life more than a hundred years ago as philanthropic organisations that provided decent homes to poor families who were previously at the mercy of slum landlords, or even worse, sent to the workhouse. But it was state regulation, and state provision via local councils, that drove the huge improvement in the housing conditions of the white working class. When black immigrants arrived in numbers in the 1950s and 1960s to fulfil the needs of Britain's expanding economy and public services, council housing was not made fully available to them.

Under the notorious "Sons and Daughters" scheme, many local councils gave priority to housing locally born, ie predominantly white, residents. Discrimination in the private sector was more blatant, but harder to address. This discrimination was supported by some white working class people, who saw themselves as being in competition for limited resources against the new and different arrivals. The result was that black residents often found themselves left, sometimes literally, out in the cold.

For the Thatcherite governments of the 1980s onwards, subsidies to the housing association movement and the enforced conversion of local authority housing into HA property were a way of undermining the socialist provision of council housing. When the seething discontent in Britain's inner cities exploded into widespread rioting in the early 1980s, discrimination in housing was identified as one of the key causes. Thus the state encouraged the growth of a black-led sector within the HA movement. Black and minority ethnic (BME) associations expanded rapidly, and in addition to empowering the communities they served, they played a key role in challenging racist practices in the housing sector as a whole.

BME associations follow exactly the same rules on housing allocation as today's mainstream associations; there are no racial qualifications for tenancies. What black-led associations do differently is to provide much needed specialist community services in areas as diverse as gun crime, teenage pregnancy and back-to-work skills training. They also provide employment opportunities to minorities, and allow black professionals to break through the glass ceiling that holds them back elsewhere.

Ujima, like the other HAs, suffers from the expectation that it will provide on the basis of need, while having to operate according to the principles and ethos of the market. The association's governance record has also come under the spotlight. Senior managers who were perceived to be questioning Ujima's strategy, were summarily dismissed.

When, in October 2007, an employment tribunal ruled against the association, the regulator decided to act. Using its statutory powers, the Housing Corporation seized control of Ujima and appointed new members onto the board. Ujima's chief executive, Keith Kerr, responded by unleashing an extraordinary tirade of abuse against the corporation, accusing it of racism and describing the appointees as "spies". Kerr's ill-judged attack was to prove his downfall. The corporation's appointees retaliated by suspending him and removing the association's chair and several other officials from the board.

This sorry tale, which might have been remembered as little more than an embarrassing spat, then took a new twist. Keen to find a quick solution to the financial crisis, Ujima's new appointees rushed into exclusive takeover talks with London and Quadrant, a huge generalist housing association. If the takeover goes ahead, Ujima and its work on behalf of the black community will be no more. The former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Lord Herman Ouseley, is furious. He says that the proposed takeover "has left black-led community groups feeling they've been kicked in the teeth."

The Housing Corporation is remaining tight-lipped. Their spokesperson would not comment on the future of the BME sector, but instead told me that their concern was "to ensure that the long term interests of Ujima's residents and its social housing assets can be secured."

But Leslie Laniyan, who chairs the Federation of Black Housing Organisations, believes that the corporation is ignoring the wider implications. What is at stake, he told me, is the survival of the black and minority ethnic housing sector itself: "Ujima manages around 5,000 properties, which is one quarter of all HA black-led sector tenancies. If Ujima disappears, the future for this sector looks very bleak indeed. Those who remain will be sitting ducks for takeover."

Laniyan argues that Ujima's financial problems are not terminal: "Other options have not been properly explored. Ujima is sitting on over £1bn of assets, some of which can be realised. Their cash-flow problem is around £30m, which is manageable if the equity is used wisely. This is not Northern Rock we are talking about. If the political will exists, Ujima's financial problems need not spell its demise."

"Our biggest enemy is complacency," Laniyan added. "Now that racist allocation of tenancies is largely a thing of the past, the Housing Corporation seems to think that our battle is over. But it is only half won. Providing a roof over people's heads is only part of what we do. My worry is that without the black-led sector to lead the way, some of the old practices could return through the back door."


This article was published in the 'Comment is Free' section of the Guardian website.

Calvin Tucker is a co-editor of 21st Century Socialism.