Fighting the legal case for BME housing associations

Chaya Spitz OBE, 15 December 2022

As the year draws to a close, we reflect on the long battle Agudas Israel Housing Association (AIHA) has waged to defend its right to provide housing to Orthodox Jewish people.

Earlier this year the European Court of Human Rights upheld a ruling in favour of AIHA dismissing a discrimination claim. This was a landmark case for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) housing associations as it confirmed that making targeted provision to meet the needs of minority groups is protected by the law.

According to research from the NHF, 1.6 million households in England are estimated to be in need of social housing – 500,000 more than recorded on official waiting lists. This problem is further compounded for BME communities as they experience significantly greater levels of housing need and face inequalities in many aspects of society.

BME housing associations play a crucial role in providing quality housing for tenants of all backgrounds, but their work goes far beyond housing and includes advocating for anti-racism and inclusion, acting as vehicles for neighbourhood regeneration and community cohesion.

Our history

BME housing associations are activist organisations, many were created in response to the lack of quality housing available to BME communities in the 1980s.

This led to the creation of AIHA, with the objective of meeting the housing needs of Orthodox Jews. They needed to live in neighbourhoods where they could feel safe, be close to their community and faith facilities, and accommodate large families.

People from these groups had been woefully overlooked by local authorities and mainstream providers. AIHA was welcomed to the sector as a valuable partner to address the housing need in Orthodox Jewish communities.

For 40 years, we have been providing great homes and care services that enable all our residents to flourish and achieve their full potential.

From the management of short-life housing in one borough, AIHA has grown substantially and now owns over 900 homes. Our portfolio includes good quality affordable housing for rent and shared ownership, retirement living, respite and residential and nursing care. We remain true to our founders’ vision and continue to provide more great homes and support for all ages and needs, from generation to generation. 

Empowering marginalised communities to create solutions to tackle inequalities is a strong approach adopted by BME housing associations. Their effort is passionate and undiluted. Their lived experience and real understanding of the issues faced by many, lead to highly effective responses. 

Without a doubt, the majority of the people AIHA has housed would not have been helped without our intervention. Our work has made a difference to help close the housing gap although large barriers still remain in access to social housing.

The legal challenge

A legal challenge against the aims, objects and work for which AIHA was established was mounted against us in 2018.   

A single mother with disabled children who was in housing need argued that AIHA was discriminating against her by not providing her with a home because she was not Orthodox Jewish. AIHA defended its policy as a proportionate and legitimate way of meeting the needs of a minority group that has specific needs and inequalities in respect of housing.

Our decision to defend the case was not taken lightly. The claimant had the benefit of legal aid funding covering their costs. We had to find tens of thousands of pounds (and eventually hundreds of thousands as the case went up through the courts), with substantial amounts unrecoverable even in the event of success.

The decision to fight back was based on much more than legal arguments. It was about the fundamental nature of the challenge to our very purpose and existence as a BME housing association.

Was our mission as a specialist housing provider legal and valid in modern Britain? The claim also raised questions about the legality of any housing targeted at BME groups, or other groups with special needs such as older people or LGBTQ+ people. 

This began a multi-year saga with AIHA presenting the Courts with convincing evidence of the need for targeted provision.

AIHA won outright at each stage, from High Court, Court of Appeal to Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed the UK Supreme Court’s finding and rejected a further appeal. At every level, the judges ruled that AIHA’s work, mission and objectives are lawful, allowing us to continue the work for which we were founded, ‘developing and managing homes for the Orthodox Jewish community’.  

The loss of much of the BME housing sector since the 1990s is widely seen as having resulted in the weakening of housing provision for members of BME communities.

At AIHA, we’re proud of the part we’ve played in protecting the sector, firmly establishing the legal right to take positive housing action for those who need our special support.

BME housing associations still have a very important role to play in addressing the clear and obvious disadvantage facing marginalised communities in accessing good quality affordable housing.