Housing and living conditions – United Kingdom

For the London borough of Newham, COVID-19 is the latest chapter in a history of discrimination

Zita Holbourne

Newham, a deprived borough in East London with a high proportion of ethnic minority residents, has been one of the areas in the United Kingdom (UK) hardest hit by COVID-19. As a race equality and anti-austerity campaigner working for decades with local communities, I was not surprised by this.

After more than a decade of government austerity, with the deepest cuts being made to the poorest boroughs, the virus has exposed the profound shortfalls in health and well-being caused by discrimination. This has been the reality for many of Newham’s residents long before the latest crisis, reflected in the fact that on the eve of the pandemic it had the highest tuberculosis rates in the UK, at 47 cases per 100,000 people in 2018 (2.5 times the rate for London as a whole and 5.5 times the rate in England during the same year).

While Newham is notable for its diversity – some 71 per cent of Newham’s population is Black, Asian and minority ethnic, according to the 2011 Census – it is also one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with 37 per cent of its population living in poverty, second only to neighbouring Tower Hamlets in this respect. It is perhaps not surprising, given the area’s history of marginalization, that it soon became a major epicentre in the first weeks of COVID-19’s spread: by the beginning of May, Newham was reporting the highest death rate of any borough in the country, with 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people live in the most deprived areas of the UK because of the institutional racism they face in every aspect of life, including housing, employment and services. We have heard politicians and pundits declaring that the virus does not discriminate, but the social conditions that have led to Black, Asian and minority ethnic people dying do, leaving our communities two to three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. In Newham, the interplay of a number of factors closely tied to discrimination and exclusion has been deadly and enduring — over the course of the first year of the pandemic, it registered the highest excess death rate in the country.

One significant issue for Newham community members is the discrimination many face in the labour market and in employment. As many as 36,000 residents do not receive the minimum wage, let alone a living wage sufficient to meet their basic needs in London. They are more likely to work in precarious jobs or in frontline roles as key workers in areas such as social care, public transport and food supply. Often without the option to work from home and lacking adequate personal protective equipment, they can face considerable potential hazards associated with their work — yet even those at high risk may feel unable to stop working in order to shield, protect loved ones or to recover when they contract the virus, because they cannot afford to do so. 

By the beginning of May 2020, Newham was reporting the highest death rate of any borough in the country, with 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

Another critical factor is the prevalence of sub-standard housing and living conditions that enable the rapid spread of COVID-19. Newham has the worst overcrowding rates in the UK and is notorious for rogue landlords exploiting tenants desperate for accommodation. This had led to the scandal of people being housed in sheds and garages, as well as large numbers of migrant families squashed into small houses and flats — with sometimes three or four families living in a single two-bedroom property. In one notorious case in 2015, 26 people were found living in a three-bedroom property. In most instances, however, these abuses go unreported.

Newham has seen much ‘regeneration’ in recent years, yet this has not benefited the poorest in the borough, with insufficient affordable homes and social housing being built to offset the more expensive developments initiated during and after the 2012 Olympic Games in Stratford, a district in the north-western corner of the borough. As a result, many poor working-class families have been priced out of the area. This is the latest episode in a long process of displacement that stretches back to the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when the introduction of the right-to-buy scheme meant that a lot of council housing became privately owned while no further social housing was built to replace it.

Nowadays, new-builds attract wealthier buyers to the borough. Prior to this, some high-rise council buildings had begun to be knocked down, but now developers build even taller apartment blocks, but for the luxury market. Meanwhile, the poorest residents in Newham have until recently continued to occupy hazardous, cheaply constructed housing. For example, a number of tower blocks in Newham were insulated with the same dangerously flammable material that was used on Grenfell Tower, where a fire broke out in 2017, leading to 72 people losing their lives. The Newham authorities have finally completed the removal of this sub-standard cladding from all council-run housing.

For the few residents who are still able to access social housing, usually as a result of an emergency or profound trauma, securing different accommodation as your circumstances change can be incredibly challenging. If, for example, you are a single person who then has a child, or a family with one child who then has two more, you will not be rehoused to a larger property and are told that you have to wait until your child is a teenager. This means that the only options you have are either to get a mortgage to buy a property yourself or to give up your social housing to rent on the private market.

For most, of course, neither is an option. Low pay, precarious work and zero-hours contracts — all issues impacting disproportionately on ethnic minorities — make securing a mortgage close to impossible, especially for young people with young families. Likewise, giving up the relative security of social housing to brave the private market, with its exploitative landlords and sub-standard housing conditions, is not something most would choose to risk. Anyhow, the huge cost of renting privately a property that meets your family needs makes it an unaffordable option. As a result, many have no choice but to continue to live in appalling conditions indefinitely. I have heard of families with five children forced to live in a two-bedroom property for several years.

I know this, too, because I have had to navigate this opaque and inhospitable system myself. The flat that I lived in when my baby was born years ago was in one of the Grenfell-style blocks, initially earmarked for demolition before the authorities instead renovated the building but applied the same dangerous cladding to it. As my son grew up, I tried every route possible in order to get a larger property than the one-bedroom flat we were living in. The council told me I would have to wait until my son was a teenager to be rehoused. I tried the council exchange system, but of course nobody wanted to give up their two- or three-bedroom property for my one-bedroom property — so it was impossible.

At the time, however, there was a scheme where you could receive a set amount of money as a down payment on your mortgage if you gave up your council property, and in the end this is what I was forced to do — but I was also fortunate to be able to do so because I had a secure full-time job. While this was a better alternative than exercising the right-to-buy, because at least it freed up the property for someone else who needed social housing, for the many Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers living in the borough who lack secure or adequately paid work, this is not an option.

And so the same cycle of bad housing, low pay and deprivation continues, impacting disproportionately on ethnic minority and migrant communities in London and elsewhere. This is why COVID-19 has exacted such a heavy toll in Newham. While the past year has been one of trauma and difficulty for everyone, for the most deprived communities the impacts have been devastating. While race equality activists have long highlighted that racism kills, the pandemic has brought this hard truth into plain sight, with a virus that appears to flourish alongside discrimination and exclusion.

COVID-19 would seem to offer clear proof that institutional racism can lead not only to reduced life chances but also to severe illness, disability and death. Yet in March 2021, a year on from the onset of the pandemic, the government published its Race Commission report — a document which was immediately met with shock and outrage by race equality campaigners, historians, health experts, researchers, academics and community members for suggesting that, in fact, institutional racism did not exist. This bodes ill for any hopes of a transformative, rights-based approach to public health through more equitable housing, employment and services. Until the reality of racism is recognized and addressed, minority ethnic communities in Newham and across the UK will continue to suffer from its effects.


Photo: Focus E15 Mothers Chain of Power protest the scandal of Newham Council leaving 400 empty homes at the Carpenters Estate while those living at the Brimstone House hostel and many others need safe housing, Stratford, Newham. Credit: JESS HURD/reportdigital.co.uk.