Written by:
Dr Shabna Begum

Housing: a burning issue

Read time:
5 minutes

Housing: a burning issue

As the recent death of a Bangladeshi man in an east London flat fire tragically highlighted, Black and minority ethnic communities too often live in overcrowded and unsafe conditions. This is nothing new says the Runnymede Trust’s Dr Shabna Begum, whose new book, From Sylhet to Spitalfields, tells the story of a momentous Bengali squatters’ movement in the 1970s that offers vital lessons for today’s housing challenges. 

In November 1969, Abdul Masabbir, a young man in his twenties, was lodging in a house just off Tottenham Court Road in central London, sharing rooms with many other Sylheti migrant men, when a faulty paraffin heater caused a deadly fire to break out. 

Although it was the early evening, Abdul recalled that many of the men were asleep as they were due to work night shifts. He tried to wake them up as he and a friend raced down the stairs and out of the house to safety. Sadly, two teenagers – both new arrivals to the UK – were trapped on the third floor, above the fire, and unable to escape. 

Abdul described watching them bang on the window and shout for help. Then, in desperation, they jumped out of the window: the first fell on the metal railings below and died of his injuries; the second later died in hospital. 

These men were living in overcrowded conditions with hazardous heating and cooking facilities that exposed them to great jeopardy. Abdul went on to marry and become father to me and my siblings. Sadly, the dreams of the teenagers who died that night were left unfulfilled. 

A contemporary newspaper report on the 1969 house fire © Camden local history library and archives
'It is remarkable how little has changed over the last half a century'

Fifty-four years on it feels like little has changed. Last week we learned of the tragic death of Mizanur Rahman, one of 17 migrant men living in a two-bedroom flat in Shadwell, east London, when a deadly fire broke out. It appears to have been sparked by an e-bike battery that was being charged indoors; it seems many of the tenants worked in the precarious and low-paid bike-delivery economy, with which so many of us have regular, if fleeting, interactions. 

Beyond the cause of the fire, it is remarkable how little has changed over the last half a century. The men in that cramped Shadwell flat were mainly migrants of Bangladeshi heritage who had arrived from different parts of Europe. There were multiple bunk beds crowded into each bedroom and the kitchen and living room were also used as sleeping spaces. 

The private leaseholder landlord apparently earned £8,000 rent per month from these tenants. Neighbours had complained about the overcrowding to the local council and expressed concerns about the fire safety breaches inevitable in such dangerous living conditions, but it appears little action was taken.

The ONS recently released census statistics about housing tenure and occupancy that confirmed Black people in England and Wales continue to experience higher than average rates of overcrowding. British Bangladeshis, specifically, have the highest rates; nearly two-fifths live in overcrowded households. 

These conditions contributed to the excess and disproportionate deaths suffered by our communities during the pandemic; the inability to socially distance and isolate led to so many tragic and preventable deaths. 

Regrettably, though, the problem is not just about overcrowding. Black and minority ethnic communities are also over-represented when it comes to indicators that tell us about poor housing conditions, including that we have a nearly 50 per cent greater risk of homelessness than white households. 

Awaab Ishak was a two-year-old boy who died of respiratory failure caused by the black mould in the housing association property in which he lived. His parents had repeatedly complained and pleaded with social housing provider Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to fix the mould or rehouse them, but were ignored. After their son’s death, they blamed racism and anti-migrant attitudes for the neglect and indifference they had experienced. 

This resonates with what happened at the Grenfell Tower nearly six years ago when 72 people from mainly working class, Black and minority ethnic communities died in a tragic fire that residents had warned about, but whose voices and needs had been dismissed.

'I explore the hidden history of a Bengali squatters’ movement'

But Black and minority ethnic communities also have long histories of fighting against this kind of housing discrimination. In my new book From Sylhet to Spitalfields: Bengali squatters in 1970s East London I explore the hidden history of a Bengali squatters’ movement that developed in response to institutional discrimination by local housing systems and street racism in the form of National Front violence. 

It begins with my parents’ stories because once my mum and sister arrived in 1975 staying in room/bed-sharing accommodation was no longer sustainable. Something of a crisis emerged in Tower Hamlets as families struggled to find a place to live, even though many had male members who had lived and worked in the UK for decades. Rather than continue to live in severely overcrowded conditions or face dispersal to more remote and isolated parts of the borough, lots of families decided to occupy empty flats. 

Supported by Black Power activists from the Race Today Collective and a small group of local white squatters, the Bengali community took direct action to solve their housing crisis. In the space of two years, both the Greater London Council and the Tower Hamlets council were forced to concede to the demands for tenancy agreements. Crucial to the success of the movement was the breadth of the people involved. Only a minority were activists – most were ordinary migrant families, but they were supported by Race Today activists, who helped with the political campaign and organised legal advice. 

'The community was mobilised to take action'

The legislative landscape has since shifted dramatically: squatting in residential properties is now illegal and our current housing crisis means there aren’t any empty properties available for occupation, even if direct action was an option. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be taken from this period of community activism. 

Perhaps most importantly, the community was mobilised to take action because it had a strong sense of entitlement to decent housing and the right to housing in an area in which its members felt safe. Community members refused to accept exclusionary narratives and positioned themselves as rightful social housing tenants. They worked across communities and with different levels of engagement. Men, women, children and families were part of the campaigning and, significantly, the sheer number of people involved meant they simply could not be dealt with by an eviction process. 

Remembering these struggles is important as they remind us that we have faced – and overcome – similar situations of housing injustice in the past. Men like Mizanur Rahman and babies like Awaab Ishak should not be dying in these kinds of housing conditions. Now more than ever we need to think about how we link up the broader tapestry of institutional housing discrimination experienced by Black and minority ethnic communities and consider how individual, family, local and national experiences can be mobilised to effect long overdue change.

Dr Shabna Begum is head of research at the Runnymede Trust. Her new book, From Sylhet to Spitalfields: Bengali squatters in 1970s East London, is out now.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust

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