Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Residents of Grenfell Tower could be indirect victims of the city’s approach to “affordable” housing.
A terrifying scene unfolded in London early Wednesday morning when a 24-floor public housing tower went up in flames. Home to around 600 people, West London’s Grenfell Tower was the site of a fire that spread incredibly quickly to other floors, causing at least twelve fatalities so far, with numbers expected to rise further. Twenty-four residents are also in critical condition, injured while struggling to protect themselves or escape from the blaze.
As the tower continues to smolder, a truly awful story is coming into focus. It’s not just the grim news that people have died and hundreds more are suddenly homeless. It’s also that tenants of Grenfell Tower have been warning of unsafe conditions for years.
In a chillingly prescient blog post last November, members of the residents’ association wrote:
It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord... and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.
That landlord is the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), a not-for-profit company in charge of refurbishment and maintenance of the building. The building is owned by the local borough of Kensington and Chelsea—London’s wealthiest borough. In a trend now typical across London, the borough contracted KCTMO to refurbish the tower, in part to increase the number of apartments available for private rent or sale. That work left the tower with just one staircase and exit—an exit that the management company has failed to keep clear. Protests about the safety of the people living in the tower fell on deaf ears.
Early reports suggest that the fire spread so fast thanks to newly installed thermal cladding on the exterior. The material is in alarmingly common use across the U.K. and may be flammable. Alarm systems in the tower also worked solely on a floor-by-floor basis, while residents had been told previously that if a fire occurred, they should remain in their homes.
This wouldn’t necessarily be bad advice if the building were fully fireproofed and adapted to ensure that fire doesn’t spread from floor to floor. But the fire at Grenfell Tower spread so fast that this advice may have left them more vulnerable to harm.
What is far harder to stomach is the official response to constant, well-documented complaints from residents. When protests about KCTMO appeared on the residents’ association blog, the borough had lawyers send letters demanding the post be taken down. As this BBC interview with a resident makes clear, people living in the block were either ignored or threatened by contractors when they raised their concerns.
Now, the block is uninhabitable and some of those residents have lost their lives.
The spectacular nature of the fire may be a one-off, but the conditions that made it possible are not. A 2011 report found that three-quarters of Britain’s social housing blocks were potentially unsafe in a fire. That condition was only exacerbated when many previously publicly owned units were released onto the private market, as part of the Right to Buy scheme. This allowed long-term public housing tenants to buy their apartments at a discount, and many quickly re-sold at a mark-up soon after. As a result, the most desirable projects ended up in part-private ownership.
There’s a political dimension to all this that cannot be ignored: In recent years, the state and availability of public housing has been one of the most hotly contested issues in Britain—especially in London.
The city’s most acute current issue is a chronic housing shortage. Most of London is built at fairly low densities, but planning laws and organized resistance by suburbanites have made it very difficult to build enough new housing in the more spacious outer boroughs. Inner-city projects, by contrast, are relatively easy to redevelop because the land is still publicly owned. These areas have become a key target for densification projects, rebuilding, and in-fill construction.
Redeveloping projects like these is especially attractive to cash-strapped boroughs because it helps them manage severe austerity cuts imposed by the central government. By attracting buyers to these properties, the boroughs can generate revenue and attract wealthier residents who pay higher taxes and use fewer public services. Redeveloping or remodeling public projects also means that boroughs and developers can squeeze out extra revenue by adding homes for the private market—“affordable” homes that, while cheaper than market rates, still generate some income.
In order to maximize these profits, there’s pressure to remove as many poorer public housing tenants as possible, to make more room for market-rate apartments. Homes that previously had public tenants in them are left unfilled, while public tenants can be offered a flat fee to clear out and never return (in some cases without fully understanding that the money offered bars their right to return). Evictions spike as property management companies instigate zero-tolerance policies against rent arrears. Slowly but surely, the number of public tenants who retain the right to live in the refurbished or rebuilt building is whittled away.
In some cases, this kind of transformation involves the complete demolition of a project. In cases such as Grenfell Tower, however, it meant not demolition but fiddling around with the internal floor plan to make room for more apartments, a process that may have compromised the tower’s fire safety by breaking down the previous controls that might have prevented fire from sweeping from floor to floor. The new cladding, meanwhile, is typical of an approach that seeks to superficially improve a building’s appearance to make it more marketable to private tenants, while neglecting more important structural deficiencies not immediately visible to the casual viewer. If Grenfell Tower hadn’t been rearranged to create more apartments and re-clad to make it look newer, there’s a chance it would still be standing intact.
The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower will likely have serious repercussions, arriving as it does during a political turning point in Britain. After poor election results, Theresa May’s government is signaling an end to austerity policies that have promoted the systematic neglect of public infrastructure. The London neighborhood where the fire took place has also been in the news because of an unprecedented swing to the Labour Party in an area that, despite its less wealthy northern fringes, is one of the richest in the world.
The reports of neglect, threats, and indifference by the Conservative-held local council toward low-income tenants seem especially bitter given the incredible wealth of the area as a whole. On a national level, the media has already noted that Theresa May’s new chief of staff sat on a report that exposed serious concerns about the fire safety of residential towers. But it would be inaccurate to present Grenfell Tower’s neglect as a Conservative issue alone. Most inner London boroughs are in fact held by the Labour Party, and report similar experiences of low-income displacement, public housing neglect, and officially sponsored gentrification. These have been powder-keg issues in London for years, with activists warning that some crisis would come sooner or later. It’s now arrived, in the worst imaginable way.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described KCTMO as a for-profit organization, rather than a not-for-profit organization.