A tale of two cities: the global housing crisis

A protest demanding justice for Grenfell victims, in Kensington, Britain, on June 16.
June 24, 2017

Unless you lived in West London, you would not have known about a 24 story, 70-metre-high apartment block that served as public housing London before June 14.

Grenfell Tower housed low paid workers, single mothers, migrants — those who could not afford to live anywhere else. It is located in an affluent area of London surrounded by luxury apartment blocks, many of which are empty.

But on June 14 Grenfell Tower appeared on TV screens globally, as a deadly fire swept through the building. Residents were directed to stay in their apartments, in the belief that the fire fighters could contain the blaze. However the building’s cladding was flammable and allowed the fire to sweep around the outside of the building rapidly, trapping people in their apartments.

The death toll was further compounded by the lack of a sprinkler system in the building, and faulty fire alarms that did not go off. Residents were only aware of the fire when they heard shouting or were woken by people knocking on their doors. Other residents said the only reason they survived is because they ignored notices in the building to stay put in instances of fire and exited the building early.

Another bitter pill for the residents is that the council ignored previous warnings from the Grenfell Action Group, who complained about the poor fire safety standards in the building. In fact the council threatened the group with legal action in 2013 for defamation and harassment.

Former Conservative Housing Minister Gavin Barwell has also been criticised for delaying a fire safety review that was shelved for four years and delayed again due to the snap election.

In 2014, the Lacrosse Tower in Melbourne’s Docklands went up in flames. That fire was also blamed on combustible construction materials, both in the structure of the building but also the outside cladding.

An audit in 2016 found more than half Melbourne’s surveyed buildings contained highly flammable cladding. Former fire chief Peter Rau, who led the fight against the Lacrosse Tower fire, said since the Grenfell Tower tragedy that the Docklands building is still unsafe as it still contains the same flammable cladding that does not need to be removed for another year.

The state of public housing in New Zealand has also come to the forefront after a one-year-old developed a lung infection due to the low standard of living. The family said the property was so mouldy, damp and cold that they would be better off living in a tent. This was met with tips on how to keep a house warm and dry but no mention that people deserve quality public housing, regardless of their income level.

In Australia things are hardly any better. I have lived in private rentals as an adult with little to no heating and black mould in the bedrooms. As a child, I lived in a rental property with my parents, which flooded any time there was a decent bit of rain. My sister, lucky to get public housing due to extensive waiting lists, could see daylight coming through the walls due to large cracks in the structure of the building.

David Lammy Labour MP for Tottenham, gave an interview after the Grenfell Tower tragedy where he posed the question: is the welfare state just about schools and hospitals or is it about providing a safety net? Lammy went on to say: “We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable.”

That means good quality, affordable public housing, not social housing, not privatisation or relying on the free market to provide quality housing. The 58 declared dead or missing and presumed dead in the Grenfell Tower fire prove that it does not. As a society we deserve better, and we need to go out and demand it.

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