Our History

Find out how more than 30 years of campaigning for the rights of people from ethnic minority, refugee and migrant communities became the international charity we now know as Positive Action in Housing. No matter what form it took, our work and commitment has come from a belief that everyone has the right to live stable and fulfilled lives free from poverty, homelessness or racial discrimination.

30 years of Campaigning

Our work began in Scotland over 30 years ago when, in 1989, four inner city housing associations in Glasgow commissioned research to find out about the housing needs of ethnic minority communities in their local areas. The Commission for Racial Equality and the then Housing Corporation in Scotland jointly funded the study. It followed criticisms of their record of housing people from ethnic minority communities since the 1950s and 1960s.

The criticism cited research that showed people from ethnic minority communities tend to suffer disproportionately worse housing conditions than the indigenous community, including severe overcrowding, substandard housing and racial harassment, particularly in rural areas and peripheral council estates.

The resulting report, entitled Race and Housing in Glasgow: The Role of Housing Associations (1989), had this to say:

“If associations do not demonstrate accountability and go beyond the rhetoric of equal opportunities and produce evidence to show that they are serving all sections of the population and not only white residents, … this will inevitably lead to the formation of ethnic minority housing associations.

“… should community-based housing associations “deny” equal access to ethnic minority families over the next five years, the demand for this type of public housing could readily emerge. Ethnic minority housing associations will become a reality… and the local community associations will have failed to meet the challenges posed by our research findings. Scottish Homes, unlike the Housing Corporation in England and Wales, has yet no declared policy on ethnic minority housing associations… ”

Improving links between ethnic minorities and housing associations

The research destroyed many myths about why ethnic minorities do not live in public and social rented housing.

The Housing Corporation in Scotland responded by publishing its first Guidance Note on ‘Race & Housing’. The housing associations involved used it to justify the creation of the Race and Housing Project. The project had two primary aims:

to develop better links between ethnic minority communities and the participating housing associations, and,

to create greater awareness in the ethnic minority communities of the existence and function of housing associations.

In January 1992, the Race & Housing Project ran Scotland’s first Race & Housing Conference. This Conference sparked a debate about whether we need ethnic minority-run housing associations in Scotland.

Taking Action on Housing Inequality in Scotland

Recognising that race & housing was a national issue for the whole housing association movement, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations took over. It extended the original Race & Housing Project incorporating the element of equal opportunities. The Housing Equality Action Unit (HEAU) – operating under the umbrella of the Scottish Federation of Housing Association – was established for three years.

The Project received funding from Scottish Homes, Housing Association Charitable Trust and Scottish Housing Association Charitable Trust. Comic Relief and the Tudor Trust provided specific project funding.

Working with vulnerable communities

In Summer 1992, HEAU staff visited Hilltown in Dundee. Ethnic minority tenants complained about problems of racial harassment and a lack of suitable housing for families in safe areas. The shortage of private ethnic minority landlords in Dundee made it even more difficult for ethnic minority families to live in multiracial ‘safe’ areas. The local housing associations had very few ethnic minority tenants or family housing.

HEAU carried out a series of public meetings in Dundee at which councillors, housing workers and people from the communities, and the media were present. Following those public meetings, HEAU helped members of the communities in the affected areas to set up the Dundee Asian Housing Forum (DAHF).

Before HEAU’s involvement, the council had ignored the racial harassment problems of its Ethnic Minority tenants. This outreach work brought local and national media attention to the issues of racial harassment against the predominantly Asian communities in Hilltown.

Worried about the bad publicity, the Council set up the Ethnic Minorities in Housing Working Party. It changed its missive of let to incorporate racial harassment as specific grounds for eviction. This was the first time the Council’s Housing Plan mentioned people from ethnic minority communities, and in 1995, Dundee secured its first eviction of a tenant for racial harassment. The police also doubled their presence around Asian shops and Hilltown estate.

Further outreach continued in the spring of 1993 when HEAU began work with the Bangladeshi communities living in the Gorgi-Dalry area of Edinburgh. While local housing agencies cited football racism as the main problem, HEAU found that the view of the predominantly Bangladeshi communities in Gorgi-Dalry was quite different. Families complained about the lack of suitable housing in the area. HEAU also uncovered a stark age difference between spouses within the Bangladeshi communities, where relatively young women were often married to men of near-pensionable age. What would be the response of housing providers providing traditional sheltered housing suitable for singles, couples and no more families in these situations?

Another significant finding was that every private ethnic minority tenant interviewed had an ethnic minority landlord. Reasons given by the tenants for this were: ‘white landlords do not rent to Asians’ HEAU relayed its findings to the local housing providers, who prioritised building homes for single people in the area.

The outreach work carried out by HEAU underlined the need to

“focus primarily on the points of view of individuals within affected communities about their perceptions of the ‘problem’, and consider the views of housing providers within the context of those affected individuals’ views.”

This plank of HEAU’s work was crucial to the development of Positive Action in Housing Ltd because it was about meeting people in their environment and encouraging community strategies from the people living in those communities rather than primarily from external agencies.

Spotlight on Scotland to address racial inequality and under-representation of ethnic minorities

In November 1993, an investigation, Housing Associations and Racial Equality in Scotland 1994, carried out by the Commission for Racial Equality, revealed that Scottish housing associations came a poor third behind their Welsh and English counterparts in tackling racial equality.

Scottish housing providers lacked racial harassment policies and, even in multiracial areas, were under-representative of ethnic minority tenants, staff and committee members.

The Commission for Racial Equality criticised Scottish Homes for not taking enough of a lead on Race Equality and Equal Opportunities.

The Commission recommended that Scottish Homes devise a policy to support and set up ethnic minority-led housing associations to tackle under-representation, historical disadvantage and current racial discrimination in the Scottish housing movement.

In its response to Scottish Homes’ draft policy, “Ethnic Minority Housing” (Dec.1993), the Commission also warned that if Scottish Homes did not make tangible progress by February 1997 to address racial inequality and the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the Scottish housing movement, then it would lead to grave doubts about Scottish Homes’ commitment to setting up an effective race equality policy. It would also mean that Scottish Homes would not be fulfilling its duties under the Race Relations Act 1976.

Falling short of the Commission’s recommendations

In November 1994, at HEAU’s Fourth Race & Housing Conference, Scottish Homes launched its first “Ethnic Minority Housing” policy. Described by Scottish Homes as its flexible approach, the policy contained plans to:

Appoint a race equality officer

Set up a Positive Action Training in Housing (PATH) scheme, and

Target 1.25% of the annual development budget to ethnic minority housing (from 1997) and other measures.

However, the national housing agency ignored the Commission for Racial Equality’s recommendation to support and fund a strategy for setting up ethnic minority-led housing associations in Scotland. This was unsurprising. In their responses to Scottish Homes’ draft policy, many ethnic minority organisations described the presentation and analysis of the black-led housing associations’ debate as unfair, unbalanced and dwelling upon often repeated and discredited notions of such organisations.

The draft policy put a great store by research. Yet, more research into ethnic minority housing needs appeared to use myths and misconceptions as arguments to invalidate ethnic minority-led housing associations in favour of its “flexible” approach.

In its three-year life, the Housing Equality Action Unit:

ran four major race & housing conferences

published several best practice publications for housing providers,

worked with ethnic minority communities to develop community-based campaigns and support groups

brought national media attention to the problems of racial harassment and unsuitable housing facing ethnic minorities in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow

provided an incisive race perspective to Scottish Homes’ policy development work

caused Scottish Homes to develop its first ethnic minority housing policy.

Because of the Housing Equality Action Unit, Scottish ethnic minority communities actively demand their say in how housing resources – financed by multiracial taxes – are handled by housing providers and Scottish Homes, whether by setting up housing associations or by sitting on mainstream Housing Association committees.

The Housing Equality Action Unit’s contribution to actively raising the profile of and tackling the acute housing needs of people from ethnic minorities living in Scotland provided the foundation for Positive Action in Housing.

Towards the end of HEAU’s three-year life, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations completed a full assessment of the value of the Unit’s work and how best the remaining work should be carried out, if at all. Following widespread consultation with housing associations and ethnic minority organisations, the SFHA’s Equal Opportunities Working Party concluded that HEAU’s race & housing work was sufficiently developed to warrant the setting up of an independent membership-led organisation.

On Monday, June 23rd, 1995, the Lord Provost of Glasgow City Council hosted a civic reception to formally launch Positive Action in Housing Limited – the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Housing Agency.


 In our first year as a registered charity, we successfully lobbied Scottish Homes to recognise the needs of ethnic minority tenants. As a result of our campaign, they set up a training scheme to help 12 ethnic minority trainees pursue a career in housing, appointed their first race equality officer, and committed £10 million to ethnic minority housing. 


We campaigned against the ‘black-lining’ of ethnic people looking to buy their homes, whereby sellers and estate agents would actively seek white buyers. 

During these first years we had immense success in championing the housing rights of ethnic minorities in Scotland and so our charity grew – both in terms of size and impact. We began expanding our reach beyond just helping ethnic minorities with housing. Around this time, the Government first began making Britain a hostile environment for incoming asylum seekers and refugees. Responding to the growing problems facing asylum seekers and refugees – particularly those facing destitution – became a key area of our work.


 In 1998, Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in a racially aggravated attack. We were actively involved in the Chhokar Family Justice Campaign. Only one of the men accused of the murder stood trial, and there was no explanation for why this was the case. As the result of our campaign work in conjunction with the family, the two remaining accused were arrested and put on trial. 


In August 2001, we led protests in Glasgow against the council choosing to house most asylum seekers in one area – Sighthill – without any additional funding to cope with the additional population. This decision caused increased racial tensions, which led to the murder of a young asylum seeker Firsat Yildiz. Following our campaign, the council increased funding and changed its policy toward dispersal. 

This was the year that we launched our Refugee Aid project which aimed to alleviate poverty among destitute refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow through provision such as food and other necessities. In its first year the project helped 794 clients from 23 countries. Over the following years that number greatly increased. Today, we help over 1,800 refugees and asylum seekers escape destitution and build new lives every year.


In 2002 we set up our Rooms for Refugees project: a community hosting network that offers safe temporary homes for insecurely housed refugees and asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds. While this project had been successful for 13 years, it saw a notable jump in usage around 2015 during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2020-21 the Rooms for Refugees project facilitated 46,207 nights of shelter saving local authorities and shelter charities an estimated £2.3 million in emergency shelter costs.


We led opposition to the inhumane detention of asylum seekers at Dungavel Detention Centre – including the abhorrent indefinite detention of children. We assisted families and individuals through campaigning, organising bail addresses and raising money through the Dungavel Bail Fund. 


By 2005, a major focus of our work was challenging the systematic abuse of asylum seeker human rights – especially the forced dispersal, segregation, imprisonment, and state-inflicted destitution of individuals seeking refuge from persecution in their own countries. We began offering advice via casework on matters including Home Office accommodation, private housing, pre-legal refugee application advice, and destitution.


We brought national attention to the dawn raids against Scottish asylum families. We organised a petition supported by over 2400 signatories calling for amnesty for Scottish asylum-seeking families and led a Scotland-wide campaign which set the agenda of Scotland’s opposition to dawn raids. 

With the help of the renowned Oak Foundation, we launched our Money Skills Project to combat the financial illiteracy that was harming many ethnic minority communities. The Project provides people from BME, refugee, and migrant communities with one-to-one money and debt advice. Additionally, the project helps new migrants successfully obtain state benefits that they have a right to. In 2020-21, £571,013 was raised for clients by the Money Skills Team for clients through successful applications for child tax credits, working tax credits, and benefits entitlements.


Staying true to our roots as a charity for ethnic minorities, in 2007 we expanded our work again in response to the growing social prejudice and racism against members of the Roma community. Our New Migrants Action Project works predominantly with the Romanian Roma community in the Govanhill area of Glasgow which has the highest concentration of Romanian Roma anywhere in the UK. This community is arguably Scotland’s most financially and socially excluded people. The project supports its service users to know their housing and employment rights and helps them maximise their income.


We campaigned against the unfairness of child detention by highlighting the case of Sehar Shebaz and her daughter Wania who was later dubbed the last child in Dungavel. Their case received international media attention and led to the coalition government committing to end child detention pending a review. 


We campaigned on behalf of 156 asylum seekers in Glasgow facing eviction by their landlord, YPeople (YMCA Glasgow). Once evicted, they would be left destitute without access to work. When UKBA cut the residents' emergency support, Positive Action in Housing gave out crisis payments, food parcels, bus passes and referrals. When YPeople tried to freeze people out by refusing to "top up" their electricity meters, we provided replacement electricity cards. 


Starting in 2013, every year we run a successful Winter drop-in surgery during which we provide destitute asylum seekers with food hampers, toiletries, clothes, shoes, and cash to help sustain them during the harsh Christmas and New Year period. In its first year, the winter surgery aided 128 individuals. By 2020, that number had risen to 477 and we expect an even greater number again this year.

Our ability to provide holistic support that combines both humanitarian aid with proactive casework assistance remains unique in Scotland.


We supported anti-fascist demonstrations in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee. We led a successful Scottish campaign to condemn the blatantly racist and xenophobic “Go Home” campaign orchestrated by the Home Office. The voices of our supporters, together with the rest of the UK, succeeded in forcing a public U-turn by the Government and condemnation from all sections of civil society. 


Over time as we have expanded, we have embraced both new partnerships and innovative technology. In 2015, in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, we began using an online referral system – REFER – which enables caseworkers from other partner organisations to provide extensive background information on clients they refer to us in order to help us to assess, match and manage potential candidates for refugee hosting in people's homes. This enables us to more efficiently receive and action referrals so that clients swiftly receive the tailored support they need. (In 2020-21, 425 caseworkers from 220 UK-wide refugee/homelessness partner organisations referred clients to us via this platform).


We recruited 202 international medics, nurses and general volunteers to Lesvos, Greece, to support the wider humanitarian effort to assist 500,000 refugees who crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. In October, we successfully blocked Home Office plans to build a “short-term holding centre” in Scotland, which would have reinstated the practice of locking up innocent children on Scottish soil. After 300 objections and a unanimous rejection from Renfrewshire Council, the Home Office didn’t attempt to appeal. 


In March 2017, we took part in one of four oral evidence sessions held by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament as part of its inquiry into “Destitution, Asylum, and Insecure Immigration Status in Scotland.” We submitted a 10-page report outlining the day-to-day issues faced by destitute people seeking shelter in Scotland. The Committee commended and significantly referenced our humanitarian work in its final report, “Hidden Lives-New Beginnings,” released in May 2017. 

In 2017-18, in recognition of our work with refugees we became one of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) 100 global partners.


2020/21 was a challenging time for all organisations, including our own. The pandemic disproportionally affected our beneficiaries resulting in increased demand for our services. Throughout the pandemic, we have responded to urgent requests from individuals and families lacking food, toiletries, phone credits, and other essential goods and services. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, we set up a digital network of over 280 volunteers called Humans of Glasgow. Throughout the past 12 months, Humans of Glasgow volunteers have rapidly provided support in food, clothing, phones, bikes, other forms of transport, and access to education to vulnerable asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from ethnic minorities who are struggling during this time.

In March 2020, we stood alongside Edinburgh-based BME charities to campaign against a proposal by Edinburgh City Council to award only 1% of community funds to BME organisations when the City’s BME population is over 16%. All the statistics show that BME communities are disproportionately over-represented compared to the rest of the population regarding poverty, unemployment, and poor housing. Our campaign resulted in the Council reversing its decision. 

We also highlighted how, at the height of the pandemic, 300 asylum seekers were moved without notice out of their homes and crowded into hotels where social distancing was impossible. They also had their meagre financial support of £5.39 per day withdrawn, leaving them unable to top up phones to keep in contact with lawyers, caseworkers, family, GPs, or buy extra food or hand sanitiser. We wrote to the First Minister and the Home Secretary and highlighted these actions on our blog and our members and supporters. Our work resulted in a groundswell of support from civic society, including the First Minister, for a public inquiry. 


In April 2021, we led a nationwide campaign against the Aspen Card crisis caused by Home Office negligence. For over three weeks, a logistics fault caused many asylum seekers to be left without money for basics like food and clothing. We created an open letter signed by over 80 refugee and migrant organisations, lawyers, and academics across Scotland that put extensive pressure on the Home Office to find a quick solution. Additionally, we sent affected individuals’ names to the Home Office demanding immediate delivery of a new ASPEN card and arranged emergency food support where necessary. Between April and September, we issued 160 requests which led to 110 resolutions. 

2020/21 was a challenging time for all organisations, including our own. The pandemic disproportionally affected our beneficiaries resulting in increased demand for our services. Throughout the pandemic, we have responded to urgent requests from individuals and families lacking food, toiletries, phone credits, and other essential goods and services. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, we set up a digital network of over 280 volunteers called Humans of Glasgow. Throughout the past 12 months, Humans of Glasgow volunteers have rapidly provided support in food, clothing, phones, bikes, other forms of transport, and access to education to vulnerable asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from ethnic minorities who are struggling during this time.

We are proud of what we have accomplished with our campaigns. It is worth noting that the numerous changes we have affected over our twenty-five-plus year history have been brought about without dedicated posts within the organisation for policy, research, or campaigns. 

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