On June 14th, the world watched in horror as Grenfell Tower, a public housing apartment tower in London’s Kensington neighborhood, lit up the early morning skies in a frightening inferno. The 24-story building burned for over 60 hours. The fire was responsible for at least 80 deaths and more than 70 injuries. In the aftermath of the fire, the reports out of Britain have been consistent that safety guidelines in Grenfell Tower were not followed, either in the planning for a fire or in the design of the building. For example, the only escape route was 1 central staircase. Residents were told that in the event of a fire, they should wait in their apartments for rescuers. Fire alarms were either inoperable or inaudible when the fire began so residents who might have had an opportunity to escape when the fire began were not alerted in time to escape. Gas pipes were exposed and uninsulated.
Renovations to Grenfell Tower were made in 2015/2016 and completed in late 2016. Prior to renovations, as early as 2014, the Grenfell Residents Association expressed concern about safety in the building. But their concerns were not heard. To add to the tragedy, the United Kingdom significantly cut funding to legal aid over the last several years making it difficult, if not impossible, for the residents to obtain any representation to take legal action against the Housing Authority to improve conditions in the building.
And then the tragedy occurred. The worst fears were realized. Some speculate that the building cladding, the exterior insulation, was not properly installed and separated from the building, causing it to act as a chimney and allowing the fire to spread at an alarmingly fast rate. In addition, it appears that the cladding itself was flammable. One would question whether the construction was properly inspected. Since the fire, the government has ordered inspections of some 600 buildings on this issue alone. To date, at least 149 buildings have failed this inspection. The government will be expanding inspections to include other components and other types of buildings (such as hospitals and office buildings) as quickly as possible.
Grenfell Towers is run by the Kensington and Chelsey Council Housing Authority. The authority is like the public housing authorities in the United States. London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Members of Parliament have called to strip the Kensington and Chelsey Council of its power. 3 top Council leaders have already resigned. Mayor Kahn has also called on Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint new commissioners to run the authority. The scandal appears to be growing.
Building fires happen everywhere. A loss as cataclysmic as Grenfell Towers, fortunately is rare. Of course, it will be months before a final report is issued and everything I have mentioned is third or fourth hand. But it does appear that there was a lack of proper oversight at the very least. Was there gross negligence? Fraud? Incompetence? That remains to be seen. All of these things could happen in any aspect of housing and real estate development but the fact that this tragedy happened in a public housing development is frightening. Could this have happened in the United States? Certainly, I am not an expert on construction practices anywhere and definitely not in the UK. But as a starting point, I would HOPE that construction practices in the US would not allow something like this to happen anywhere in the US. Of course, that is a Pollyanna view and not fair to the contractors and workers in the UK. Shortcuts can be taken on either side of the Atlantic.
Were shortcuts taken? Did someone do something to save on costs and boost the bottom line? These are global issues and checks and balances always have to be put in place to guard against shoddy practice.
To answer the question whether a tragedy like this could happen in a US Public Housing Project I think we need to look at what is US Public Housing Policy. Back in the 60’s and 70’s and into the 80’s, the “projects” were bastions of poverty. There was not much attention paid to the people in the projects or to the infrastructure of the projects. Think about Cabrini Green in Chicago, or LA or New York Projects. With the mass amount of people living in confined places, crime was prevalent and up keep of buildings was not a priority, if it was possible at all.
In 1992, housing officials began receiving grants to tear down and replace the worst of the public housing complexes. By 2012, over 285,000 homes were eliminated and only about 1/6th of those were replaced. The policy became to get people into their own homes in order to “end the cycle of poverty”. As sites were redeveloped, some moved back, but many, most, didn’t and don’t. Projects or public housing has become “Affordable Housing”. People are subsidized to rent or own. On balance, our affordable housing stock is newer, it is up to code and unlikely to have major problems. Our housing issue is that we don’t have enough funding or enough inventory.
That is not to say that we have eliminated the public housing problem totally. New York, for example, still has a large number of public housing units. One 2014 study found that 79% of New York’s public housing’s units had a least one “major problem”. These include broken or missing windows, rats, leaks, peeling paint, holes and cracks. The city does not have adequate funding to keep up with the problems but does not ignore the problems either. The city also has a strong affordable housing program.
Of course, we could look to Oakland, California and the warehouse fire from a couple years ago as a parallel to the Grenfell Tower fire. That fire is only a parallel and not a direct comparison. In Oakland, a landlord illegally converted a warehouse and rented it for residential use. What still is not clear there is whether anyone in the city knew of the illegal conversion and turned a blind eye. Obviously, this was not a public housing situation, but it shows a crisis of lack of quality affordable or public housing in the Oakland area as so many people crowded into this illegal and dangerous warehouse, looking for an affordable place to live, at great risk to themselves.
Hopefully, the UK and the world will learn from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. More importantly, if there was negligence, or even just plain indifference, people will be punished. Those living in public housing deserve safe and sanitary living conditions, whatever the cost. No one should live in conditions that put their lives at risk.