Racism and the criminalisation of housing need

Glyn Robbins
Friday, 20 October 2017

It was great to take part in the seminar at the CCJS on 27 September about the connections between housing policy, austerity and criminalisation and how gentrification and regeneration have led to the displacement and exclusion of the poor.  We had a really good discussion.

Last week I participated in a similar event with social workers. It’s very encouraging that public and voluntary sector workers from a range of disciplines are getting together to talk about how we rebuild public services and campaign together for an alternative to austerity. It’s impossible to cover every issue in a two-hour seminar, but there was a particular thing I neglected and I’d like to correct that here.

The link between housing policy and racism is a thread that runs throughout my book. It’s particularly poisonous in the US, but by no means restricted to it.  Housing has long been used as a legal mechanism for exclusion, from the original Venetian Jewish ghetto to apartheid South Africa’s Group Areas Act.

In the UK, my own home borough of Tower Hamlets was prosecuted by the Commission for Racial Equality in the early 1990s for housing allocation policies that prevented Bangladeshi families from living in certain parts of the East End.  One of the consequences was the election of the UK’s first BNP councillor on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 when the fascists exploited the shortage of council housing to scapegoat BME communities for government policies of disinvestment.  We see the same today across the political spectrum, particularly in the false debates around Brexit.

Policies designed to exclude African-Americans from certain places have a long history and continue to shape US cities.  As my book details, places like the classic post-WW2 suburbia of Levittown near New York City were founded on providing government subsidies for low-cost mortgages, but only to whites.  More recent policies to ‘regenerate’ public housing (roughly the equivalent of council housing), by destroying it have disproportionately affected African-American communities, a poetic historical injustice because blacks were originally excluded from public housing.

One community which fell victim to such policies was the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing development in south-east Washington DC, demolished to make way for so called mixed-income housing.

Former resident Rose Oliphant reflects:

The future of DC is tearing down and building up, but there won’t be any more public housing.  There’ll be more homeless people…The culture of black people, the places we used to be able to afford to live, are being destroyed.  But it’s not about colour.  It’s about money.

This socio-spatial and ethnic engineering and its connection to crime and justice collided in the death of Trayvon Martin.  In February 2012, the 17 year-old was killed by George Zimmerman because he was a young black man in the ‘wrong place’.  Zimmerman was an armed security guard patrolling an exclusive gated housing development of the kind that embody American aspiration, inequality and paranoia.  Nearby was a public housing community where 483 sub-market rented homes had been lost in the same way as Rose Oliphant’s.  This had destabilised and displaced the local African-American population.

But in another ironic twist, some had been rehoused in private developments like that where Zimmerman worked, but that had become empty during the sub-prime crash.  Trayvon was visiting one such family when he encountered Zimmerman.

The volatile mix of discriminatory housing and policing policies continue to explode as they did at Ferguson, where there was a similar back-story of social and ethnic cleansing.  There has been an undercurrent of racism in some of the media and political coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire and strong suggestions that it wouldn’t have happened if the residents had been of a different colour and class.  Now there are real concerns the disaster could be used by those who want a different kind of city as happened in New Orleans after Katrina.

As Vicky Cooper pointed out at the CCJS seminar and in her recent book, the criminalisation of homelessness is but the most vivid example of the policy violence being visited on the poor in the UK.  The various attempts to separate housing haves from have nots, from poor doors to spiked benches, illustrate the deepening social fissures in our towns and cities.

But in her contribution to the seminar, Maureen Mansfield from Reclaim Holloway reminded us that we have a choice.  The campaign to demand the publicly-owned former prison site is used for public benefit, not private gain, comes at a critical moment.  Grenfell has forced politicians to reflect on the damage done by using housing as an agent of social division.  Holloway is an opportunity for us to show it can be done differently. 

Glyn Robbins is the author of There's no place. The American Housing Crisis and what it means for the UK

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