Somali families say they’re being forced out of east London community
The group say they're being overlooked for social housing and have accused Tower Hamlets Council of discrimination
Dozens of Somali families have accused their east London council of trying to force them out of the community by overlooking their urgent needs for social housing.
The residents have accused Tower Hamlets Council of racial discrimination and what they describe as “social cleansing” through the housing waiting list.
Allegations include receiving calls from housing officers to confirm their removal from the list, despite having emergency priority and complex needs, and attending viewings as first-preference residents, only to be told later they were not successful.
The group, who say the discrimination has been going on for years, protested outside Tower Hamlets Town Hall last week to demand answers, with support from social justice community group Coffee Afrik. The council says it is taking the concerns seriously and has launched an investigation.
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
With a waiting list of 23,000 households, social housing is limited in Tower Hamlets and the council website warns that “most people who join the housing register will never be offered a social housing tenancy”. But these Somali families say that all too often, they are overlooked for the tenancies that do become available, something they believe is because of “the colour of our skin”.
The allegations come within weeks of a report that said high rates of Covid infections and death in east London’s Somali community were “prolonged due to the legacy of historic poverty, housing density and institutional racism”. The report, published in the Journal of the British Academy, was jointly written by a Somali GP working in east London and a London School of Economics professor.
As security staff erected barriers outside the town hall, protesters, most of whom were women, chanted for justice and waved signs that read “no to housing racism in Tower Hamlets” and “Somali families need equal housing treatment”.
More than 60 people then poured into the town hall for a meeting with members of the council. Several were brought to tears as they recounted the impact on their families of overcrowded homes, poor temporary housing and a “lack of support” from housing officers.
We’re already suffering
Among them was Sagal*, one of the organisers of the protest. A single mum of four, she lives in temporary accommodation with her young children, all under 12. Sagal is in the high-priority 1A housing band for health reasons. According to the council, this band includes emergency cases and people with medical/disability needs that require they be assigned ground floor or wheelchair-accessible accommodation.
Yet Sagal and her family are on the fifth floor of a building without a lift, despite her arthritis making it difficult for her to walk. She told openDemocracy she has been on the housing register for four-and-a-half years waiting for suitable permanent accommodation.
Tower Hamlets Council’s guidance shows the average Band 1 wait time in 2021/22 was six years for a three-bedroom home and eight years for a four-bedroom home. Sagal said she has received little to no update from housing officers despite her complex needs.
“I have to chase them and [ask] how far is my situation, when am I going to be accepted for accommodation,” she told openDemocracy. “They said to me we’re going to put you on the waiting list for another temporary [accommodation]. But I said I'm already in temporary accommodation, why would I go in another?
She added: “I'm already suffering. I’ve got arthritis, [I’m suffering with my] mental health. My 12-year-old son is suffering with his mental health. He's got ADHD… We’re already suffering.”
Sagal also expressed concern for one of her daughters, who she said has “really bad asthma…Especially at night time. It’s hard for her to breathe…We’ve got mould, damp, and a leaky roof”.” Late last year, a coroner ruled that the December 2020 death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak was from a respiratory condition caused by prolonged exposure to mould in his home. The toddler lived with his parents in a one-bedroom flat rented from a social housing provider in Rochdale, northwest England.
Sagal said the only alternative is to rent privately but said: “It’s £1,900/2,000 [a month], how can I afford that?”.
Nadia, another protest organiser, said she, too, lives with her five children and 85-year-old mum in a mouldy three-bedroom house. “We’ve had to chuck most of our stuff out. We can’t go near the walls because of the mould. The damp is in the cupboards. I use plastic containers to put my clothes in.”
As a Band 1A tenant, Nadia applied for a four-bedroom house and was assured by the council that it would take no more than a month or two due to her high-priority housing category. “That was almost a year ago. They have so many different excuses. I keep ringing. And I'm not getting an answer. Whatever I asked for, whatever house I bid for… there's so many different reasons. So I'm thinking, why am I emergency then?”
Alleging that people are being told they haven’t been successful for homes over the phone, Nadia told openDemocracy: “[The council] are trying to move [the Somali community] out, that’s what’s happening.”
“A number of Somali families have gotten calls. They don't get an email, and they don't get a letter… If you get an email… and if you get a letter, it’s got the signature so you have evidence.
“They keep taking people's houses. [Especially] if the person doesn't speak very good English, or if the person is not confident to know their rights… Because of the faith they have in the system. And the faith they have in the council, they think obviously everything has been checked and is on point... If they say to you on the phone that you’re not getting the house, then you’re not getting the house.”
The most recent census shows that in 2021 6,180 residents in Tower Hamlets identified as Somali or Somalilander. While 2011 census data didn’t include Somali as an ethnicity, a council report based on the census showed the number of people who identified as Somali or Somalilander was estimated to be 6,000 to 9,000.
Responding to these allegations, Tower Hamlets Council said it “provides written notification to applicants removed from the housing register, with the opportunity to ask for a review of that decision”.
For Umm Aniis*, a mother of five, the struggle for social housing in Tower Hamlets’ Somali community is caused by “deep” discrimination.
Aniis has been on the housing register since 2008 and the growth of her family over the years means seven people, including three teenagers, are now forced to share a two-bedroom flat.
You can even sleep in the kitchen
“Two [housing] officers came to my house and they said this should be enough. You can even sleep in the kitchen,” she told openDemocracy.
“The only time I’ve been position number one on the waiting list, it was for a [property] on the 17th floor [in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire]. I didn't bid for it. Because I can't fly. I've got children. I've got five kids.”
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council told openDemocracy the allegations were being looked into, adding: “We hope to work together with these families and take their concerns seriously.”
They added: “We have over 23,000 households on our housing register and it is very important that our allocations process is fair to all residents. Housing allocations are prioritised based on those in most urgent housing need.”
The spokesperson said there is an “acute shortage” of council housing in the borough, with families facing long waits and one in six households being classed as overcrowded – three times the national average.
“Government policies like right to buy and restrictions on how much we can borrow to build means we face dwindling social housing stock,” they said, adding that through the council’s own house-building programme, it aims to build 4,000 social homes for rent.
Addressing members of the council at the meeting, Abdirahim Hassan, co-founder of Coffee Afrik, laid out the families’ demands including an independent inquiry into why families have been denied suitable housing; for each case to be individually reassessed; for a review and improvement in communication from the council; for families that are registered as disabled or as having urgent needs to be prioritised; for an impact equality assessment to be carried out and lastly, for an apology.
Until then, the families say “no justice, no peace”.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
We’ve got a newsletter for everyone
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.