Grenfell Tower, devastated by a fire Tuesday night, was a neighborhood contradiction.
The building was located in Kensington, a famously wealthy part of London where properties often sell for 1 million British pounds or more. But it wasn't luxe. It was public housing, operated by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization. Though it had recently received an 8.7 million pound (about $11 million) facelift, residents complained of gas leaks, broken fire alarms and faulty wiring. Its residents — many poor or disabled — live in one of London's least affordable neighborhoods, a place where the top quarter of earners brought home at least three times more than those in the bottom quarter.
Grenfell Tower, where at least 12 people died, highlights the way inequality is woven into the fabric of one of the world's wealthiest cities. That's not a bug. It's a feature, illustrated through anecdote — someone recently tried to rent out a closet for $710 a month — backed up by stark statistics.
First, some facts: London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, about 20 percent more costly than it was six years ago. A 2016 study attributed that phenomenon largely to housing costs. Home prices jumped sixfold in the past two decades. Rent, unbelievably, is rising even faster — experts say it will increase by 25 percent in the next five years.
Because incomes aren't growing nearly as quickly, the cost of housing is pushing more and more people into poverty. Between 2001 and 2011, weekly median incomes after housing costs among renters dropped 28 percent. Today, London has the highest poverty level in the country, along with the highest proportion of renters. It would take an average London couple more than 20 years to afford the down payment on a first-time home.
At the same time, public housing has become increasingly scarce. In 2001, 53 percent of Londoners living in poverty resided in public housing. A decade later, that number hit 39 percent.
These sky-high housing costs aren't simply a symptom of stark inequality — they're a major cause. And as the Atlantic's Citylab explained, the consequences of the growing inequality are numerous:
A city which in the past often combined private middle income housing with public estates is now seeing a polarization that is segregating London’s classes. Housing issues have already spun into open conflict, with low-income housing campaigners fighting to prevent the city’s remaining public housing being sold off to developers. As conditions worsen, direct protests against unaffordable housing are even spreading to people who may, in the long-run, possess relative privilege. Students at the prestigious University College London are currently on a rent strike for dorm accommodation they say is exploitatively priced and in poor condition. A far larger phenomenon than protest, however, is exodus. In the past two years, the number of Londoners over 30 leaving the city leapt by a quarter.
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It's an odd new reality for Britain. A century ago, the country was one of the staunchest advocates for public housing. The government believed that it had an obligation to provide secure and dependable homes for its citizens. In 1890, Parliament passed the Housing of the Working Class Act, which gave municipalities the legal power to build housing complexes. Three years later, the first of these projects was completed in East London.
Over the next decades, Conservative and Labour governments alike constructed millions of new housing units. By 1979, 42 percent of the country lived in what was called council housing.
Then Margaret Thatcher came to power. Her government pushed an idea called “right to buy,” which promoted homeownership as a free-market good. To provide an incentive, Thatcher's government offered 100 percent mortgages. It also forced councils to spend at least half of their receipts on paying down debt. (Of course, even with steep discounts, these homes were out of reach for a lot of their tenants.)
At the same time, public housing began to acquire a reputation. “People wanted to think of themselves as being self-sufficient units. They didn’t want to think of themselves as having a kind of reliance on the state,” author Lynsey Hanley explained in “Estates.” “It became a fundamental plank of the kind of 'British values' culture.”
Between 1979 and 2013, 1.6 million council homes (about a third) were bought by their tenants. At the same time, the number of homes built dropped precipitously. Today, just 8 percent of England's residents live in public housing.
The result has been a decline in the rental units that exist. As the Guardian reported:
Millions more tenants now find themselves in expensive, insecure often poor quality private housing. Social housing waiting lists are growing, while house building is faltering (meeting less than 50 percent of annual demand). Across a range of indicators, housing is worse, and more costly, for more people. Rising house prices put ownership out of the reach of millions. Spiraling rents mean low income tenants struggle to keep money aside for fuel and food. Overcrowding is increasing. The markets have failed dismally to meet housing demand.
The United Nations even released a report on the subject, finding that, “increasingly, people appear to be facing difficulties in accessing adequate, affordable, well-located and insecure housing.”
Although we still don't know what exactly sparked the Grenfell fire last light, it's already clear that poor maintenance and shoddy conditions helped the inferno spiral out of control. For years, residents asked the landlord to address the malfunctioning wiring, the faulty alarms and the dismal sprinkler system. They pointed out that there weren't nearly enough fire escapes. They wondered why the fire brigade told them to stay inside their apartments in case of emergency.
“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, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders,” the tenants' association wrote in a 2016 blog post.
It's just a reminder that even in London's richest neighborhood, the have-nots can't rely on safe, comfortable housing. As one man put it last night, while he watched his apartment burn: “Grenfell is where they shove all the people who don’t have any choice.”