Housing, race and Covid-19

Forty years ago I wrote my degree dissertation on the links between ethnic minority communities and poor housing in London, (yes, I was a housing bore even then!). I visited Islington’s council offices to study their small area census data, and inputted the information into the university computer using paper cards. A week or so later, I received one of those huge A3 concertina print outs. This was the early days of computing when the equivalent of today’s iPhone would take up an entire room.

My conclusion was that there was indeed a correlation between bad housing and ethnic minority households in London boroughs. I had a notion that underlying racism was at work (this was barely a decade and a half after Peter Rachman had exploited racial tensions in Notting Hill to evict tenants) but I was not sophisticated or clever enough to draw any conclusions about the reasons for the correlation.

Forty years on and the picture is much clearer. A series of studies have shown that some BAME groups occupy the worst homes and experience the worst health outcomes. The English Housing Survey shows that households from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be overcrowded than White British households in all tenures and in all socio- economic groups and ages: 2% of White British and 4% of White Irish households were overcrowded compared to 30% for Bangladeshi, 16% for Pakistani, and 15% for Black African households.

The average difference between White British and BAME households was greatest in London (3% of White British households were overcrowded compared to 12% for other ethnic groups). There are also stark differences in the tenure occupied by different groups. The UK Housing Review shows that 17% of White households live in the social sector compared to 39% of Bangladeshi and 42% of Black households. The social sector has higher levels of overcrowding – 8% compared to 1% for owners. (The picture is not uniform across the board – Asian, Indian, and Chinese households are less prevalent in the social sector than White households: 14%, 6%, and 6%, respectively.)

A Labour force survey in 2018 also showed that Bangladeshi and Pakistani households were much more likely than any other ethnic group to live in a multi-family household. Other studies have found that BAME households are concentrated in older and unsafe properties.

Of course, there are cultural and other reasons for these disparities – direct discrimination in the private rented sector has been well documented, but institutional racism in housing and employment has also played a part across all tenures and occupations for decades. In the social sector, for example, residential qualifications discriminated against newer arrivals. I am old enough to remember signs on pub doors in Islington saying “Travellers by appointment only”, and it is a certainty that both blatant and discreet prejudice is still at work in all areas of our society.

But COVID-19 has starkly exposed these housing differences. The ONS has found that Black men and women are four times as likely to die from the virus when compared with White people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani males were almost twice as likely to die as White males. Overall, the most deprived areas are experiencing double the deaths of the most affluent areas, and the death rate per 100,000 people ranges from four in leafy South Hams to 144 in Newham – an incredible disparity. The virus has hit hardest in the highest density areas, and London has the highest death rate of any region.


Various answers have been put forward to explain the higher death rate among some BAME households. There is a genetic predisposition that puts some BAME people at higher risk from underlying conditions such as high blood pressure, heart conditions, and diabetes. Many are also likely to be found in higher risk jobs such as shops, care settings, and transport – bus and taxi drivers. But the housing disadvantage faced by BAME households is a key factor. Cambridge virologist Chris Smith says that 80% of virus transmission is within the household, and if you live in an overcrowded multi-generational flat in Newham and one person brings the virus home it is likely that everyone will catch it forthwith. This is less likely in under-occupied homes with gardens where there is space to work and self-isolate. The crisis has therefore exposed stark housing inequalities across the country.


From what we know so far, and there is still a lot to learn, it seems fairly clear that the worst housed have suffered the most from this pandemic, and some BAME households have suffered most of all. It is an indictment of decades of failed housing policy.


It seems we still have a long, long way to go before the deadly housing divide in this country will be fixed.


(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network)

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