Why should the social housing sector embrace ethnic diversity?

Every month BAME in Property picks a theme, an area of housing to explore through the ethnic diversity lens.

This month, we’ve been sharing the importance of ethnic diversity in the social housing sector. From BME housing associations, to Asian Women’s Refuges and housing diverse tenants, ethnic diversity is crucial for this sector.

Our theme was timely, as one of BAME in Property’s first ten Partners was the Housing Diversity Network (HDN), announced on 14 May 2019.

I had a long discussion with HDN’s Chief Executive, Raj Patel, who shared his thoughts on how and why the sector could embrace diversity further, resulting in better outcomes for the very people it is trying to serve. Here are some of my thoughts following our conversation.

The majority of social housing’s leadership is white and male – and little has changed in recent years. For a sector that has more diverse customers than private housing, it is guilty of having some of the least diverse leaders. In an Inside Housing survey published in January 2018, only three out of 64 housing associations have a BME chief executive. And only one of those is a woman – Geeta Nanda, chief executive of Metropolitan Thames Valley.

Similar to the wider housing sector, there is much diversity at graduate and entry levels, with many housing associations offering credible Apprenticeship schemes. However, also apparent across the industry, is that stalling of diversity at the middle management sector, where many women and BAME professionals struggle to progress their careers. There could be many reasons for this, but lack of mentors and unconscious bias are the most commons factors for ethnic minorities leaving the industry.

Not only is this disappointing but it is also slightly concerning. The social housing sector deals with more complex needs within specific communities. Take a women’s refuge for example - women seeking refuge from domestic violence or escaping a forced marriage. These are sensitive cases, often intertwined in cultural nuances that require a different approach. How can the social housing sector respond appropriately to such incidents and be considerate of different gender, ethnic and cultural needs, when it isn’t representative of these? The sector needs to represent the various ethnicities it aims to provide for to truly respond in the most suitable manner, such as taking consideration of different languages and religions, which may impact the level of support required.

Or let’s consider housing estates in inner cities, which have significant ethnic minority populations. Research has shown that a decent roof over one’s head is the solid foundation that children need for a stable upbringing. Again, many housing associations operate within such communities, but often miss the link between crime, housing and education. This is not an isolated issue, but one that requires a more joined-up response. If you do not have diverse representatives outreaching to such communities, it is not creating a sense of mutual understanding. Rather, it alienates the very communities housing associations are set to help.

Social housing also provides for different demographics, including older residents. This type of housing is also known as sheltered housing, which many in the sector may be more familiar with. Traditionally, sheltered housing was adhered to a Western model of housing, lacking facilities for different ethnicities.

This was exactly why Raj set up Ashram Housing in 1991 and the Kalyan Ashram (Kalyan meaning ‘freedom’) shortly after. Aside from accommodating to BME resident needs better, Kalyan Ashram has separate vegetarian, Halal and Western kitchens, a small but meaningful factor in promoting inclusivity and respect for different faiths. Cultural awareness is the foundation for successful relationships between different communities.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I was pleased to hear about the work HDN is doing to encourage greater diversity within organisations. From mentoring to staff development, the HDN is supporting housing associations in ensuring equality and inclusion underpin all of the work the sector does.

In May 2018, L&Q adopted the Rooney Rule in its recruitment process to boost diversity. Its policy ensures at least one candidate from a BME background and one female candidate are interviewed for “senior leadership positions” providing they meet the role criteria. L&Q was also the first housing association to report on the Ethnicity Pay Gap.

Inside Housing launched its Inclusive Futures campaign in January 2018 to help address the lack of diversity at senior leadership levels. The media can report on this and support any campaign, but ultimately, the sector is responsible for making that change.

Looking ahead, some of the biggest issues and opportunities impacting the built environment sector are lack off affordability with regards to home ownership, an ageing population and immigration. The social housing sector has a huge role to play in grasping and responding to these issues. But if it doesn’t consider these issues through a diversity lens, it really isn’t considering them at all.

Priya Shah, Founder of BAME in Property