Faced with unwelcoming chauvinism when seeking homes, Britain's BAME community turned to self-build. Their experiences have lessons for today, says Shukri Sultan
Now-notorious ‘No Coloureds’ signs greeted the thousands of Caribbean, African and Asian commonwealth citizens seeking accommodation in 1950s Britain. Those that tried their luck renting one of the newly built council homes found themselves barred by the informal racism at play in the allocation – some didn’t become eligible until the late 1960s. Even then, many local authorities judged them by their housekeeping standards rather than housing need and allocated them lower quality homes until the late 1970s – leaving them to the mercy of racketeering landlords such as the infamous Peter Rachman.
Local authorities continued to implement discriminatory policies, such as Tower Hamlets Council’s 1987 ‘sons and daughter’ policy which disproportionately negatively affected Bengali residents. Meanwhile, in 1988 Camden and Hammersmith councils refused to house homeless migrants on the grounds that by leaving their home country they had intentionally made themselves homeless. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2021 study What’s causing structural racism in housing? documents how Britain’s Britain’s housing allocation system has been rigged against its non-white citizens. However, far from being passive victims of racism and squalor and a hostile climate, some of these communities went on to build their own homes in a number of different ways. One notable example was Fusions Jameen, the black-led self-build co-operative.
Fusions Jameen built three clusters of homes during the 1990s in the Grove Park area of Lewisham. The first, Fusions 1, was an early adopter of the housing association Chisel’s ‘Self Build For Rent’ model, which gave self-builders reduced rent in exchange for their time and labour. Built across a split site in Brockley Park and Lowther Hill, with the assistance of architect Martin Hughes, it used the modular timber frame system pioneered by Walter Segal.
The same model was used at a larger scale at Nubia Way to build 13 homes on a narrow site on the 1920s cottage estate, Downham. It was completed in 1997 with the help of Colombian architect José Ospina, who acted as the development co-ordinator. Nubia Way has only recently regained public attention despite its remarkable story. This is due to a recent Architecture Foundation documentary ‘Nubia Way: a story of black-led self building’, directed by Timi Akindele-Ajani, and produced by Rosine Gibbs-Stevenson and Rochelle Malcolm. The team described their motivation to make the film: ‘We were keen to understand why so little history was recorded about this project, which was so remarkable for what it managed to achieve despite the adversity the group had faced.’ James Thormod, a co-producer during the filming process, stated that the project ‘challenges the idea of self-build being predominantly a middle class, left-wing, white affair, which is one of the assumptions made of Segal’s earlier writings and the formation of co-operatives. It presents an alternative story, one that includes internal conflict, working-class struggles for recognition and racial tension. Yet despite this, something beautiful and architecturally rich was built. It’s about time the achievements of the street were recognised and reflected on as part of the self-build lineage.’
The first challenge to confront the self-builders was the area itself. Lewisham in the 1990s was in a dire state, with high rates of unemployment, and widespread support for the National Front which meant that some locals didn’t respond favourably to the Nubia Way project. ‘Rumours were spread that we were African refugees who had come to take local people’s housing’, explains Tim Oshodi, an original self-builder, resident and chair of Fusions Jameen. This displeasure manifested itself in a racist arson attack, with one of the houses being burnt to a crisp along with half of the two neighbouring houses. The completion of the project is a testament to the resilience and fortitude of the self-builders. Although the area has improved enormously, residents still occasionally get harassed, with dog muck poured onto their doorsteps.
Another difficulty was managing the group. ‘The biggest challenge with group self-build is the group dynamic,’ explains Oshodi. ‘We need individuals determined to build not only their own house but all 13.’ Initially, there was very little support for conflict management which, combined with arsonist attacks, resulted in group numbers fluctuating. Lorraine Cameron, who was doing her A Levels when she took part in the building project, says: ‘I enjoyed the building process but sometimes, in the depth of winter, when it gets dark at 3pm, you can lack motivation. Group meetings were held to galvanise and encourage others.
The success of Nubia Way goes beyond the completion of these well-loved homes and should be viewed in the context of how the self-build model helped people to benefit the wider community. ‘Community self-build shows how you can regenerate an area in a way that empowers local people,’ says Oshodi. This can be seen best in Fusions Jameen’s third scheme, Chinbrook Meadows, where it partnered with Lewisham College and trained 82 NVQ students. ‘Because of the relatively slower pace of self-build projects, the NVQ students could work, learn and build up their speed while being supervised, something which would not be possible on a conventional commercial site,’ he explains. Here the role of architects is not only to design but to teach. ‘With self-build an interdisciplinary approach is needed for effective project management,’ he continues. ‘Therefore the architect’s role is to help not only with the building design, but with procurement, cost control and training of the self-build group in construction and budgeting.’
Oshodi, who is also a community-led regeneration consultant, is continuing this legacy – currently on a number of projects in Lewisham. One of these is looking at how to improve health through nature. ‘There are 360 acres of green space which are not fully utilised, so we are working with Lewisham Council to develop a Park Trust that can secure money to deliver healthy living centres,’ he reports. These centres will be designed to promote a healthy lifestyle in partnership with local GPs. Oshodi refers to the 2010 ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’ Marmot Review, which examined health inequalities in England and found that including communities and individuals in design interventions could to improve the effectiveness of regeneration projects.
Community self-build shows how you can regenerate an area in a way that empowers the local community
New battles ahead
Residents of Nubia Way are now faced with another challenge. The housing association Chisel, which owns the homes, is trying to standardise rents across this and its other properties. The self-builders believe this contravenes the original agreement. In the film José Ospina, former director of Chisel Neighbourhood Community Housing Association, says: ‘I have no doubt about what the original agreements were – that the share would be in perpetuity with self-builder. That’s the agreement that was made with them.’ Dr Glyn Robbins, an academic who has worked in housing since the 1990s and managed the Quaker Court Estate in Camden for more than 10 years, says that housing associations ‘have essentially become private businesses, which they were always intended to be. There are a few exceptions, but broadly speaking, they are just private developers – especially the big ones.’
But perhaps private developer isn’t an accurate enough term. Watching the videos shared by social housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa, it is hard to see much difference between the cockroach-infested flats flooded with human waste that he campaigns to improve, and the units Rachman rented out.
There is a section of society that is particularly affected by this. In spite of what the last year’s Sewell report says, racial discrimination continues to reverberate across Britain and is experienced most acutely in housing. It is not long ago that buy-to-let mogul Fergus Wilson stated that he wouldn’t rent to Asians because of the ‘curry smell’. Not only is racism an issue in accessing accommodation but quality is also a problem. A 2021 JRF report found that a disproportionate number of BME households are living in damp, overcrowded homes that are below the government standard. This inequality was brought to the fore by the Covid-19 pandemic, where high death rates within the BME community were directly affected by housing conditions.
Robbins, who is working with Sheffield University on a report that examines how government policy today responds to racism within the housing sector, describes the action – or rather inaction – of the government as ‘crime through omission’. He has identified regional differences but is convinced that in England the government continues to turn a blind eye. However, as Robbins remind us: ‘Nothing is ever granted to the working class, they have to be campaigned for and won.’ Nubia Way is proof that change comes not only from policies but through grassroots organising.