A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision, housing for everyone, though what makes a home is perhaps not so simple. As Kim Dovey writes, home is deeply intertwined with our identity. It centres the relationship between ourselves and the earth, centres our connection to community and culture and society, to our past with its memories, and to our ability to grow into our full potential with the power to define our future. For many women, children and sometimes men this is made more complex by human violence or the weight of drudgery that too often transform domestic spaces to make of their walls a prison. Not a home, which in all of its physical, emotional and spiritual fullness should be a place of strength and safety.
A home should not be what kills us.
Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoke to consume its survivors’ past and their present, their safety and security and community. It greedily consumed a still unknown, possibly never-to-be-known, number of human beings who trusted it and built their lives within its walls. Each of them was a world of stories and dreams and laughter. Only memories and ashes now, a gaping hole in the hearts and lives of those who loved them.
In horror and despair we watched it all, a white flag being waved, cries for help, people staring at us through the windows until slowly all movement ceased. We cried with desperation and anguish and rage in front of our screen if we were not there standing as a survivor, as a neighbour, as a loved one. It is only the immense generosity of everyday people in response to this tragedy that has allowed hearts to beat again, eased this breaking. This is the generosity and the spirit that will reinvent this nation.
What could contrast more deeply with the wizened and shrivelled souls of those in power? Those who made such death and devastation possible through budget cuts year after year, those who did not just ignore years of articulate and well-informed tenant complaints and protests but actively worked to silence them, those who sat on safety reports without acting, those who cut corners and chose the cheapest possible option. They give us only defensiveness, ducking all responsibility. Instead of supporting Grenfell’s tenants, they show fear of them. They claim the lives of our people are worth less than sprinklers. They can only think to split this grieving community up, ship them out or let others take care of them on couches and floors. There is no heart in them to acknowledge our responsibility to take care of each other. There is no heart.
They are Thatcher’s brood, still extracting blood money, still trying to bolster up their lucrative (un)truth that there is no such thing as society. Papering over the reality that it is their murderous greed that has brought us here.
We continue to watch the headlines unfold. A bleak poetry.
Days pass, the onslaught slows, but the headlines don’t stop.
This story will stretch through generations.
There is so much to say about a system that increasingly treats housing as a means to accumulate capital, never as a home. A creeping worldview that only understands the value of housing as a commodity, as something to be bought and sold, speculated in, land banked. To them, where you live is only a piece of property subject to global markets, real estate whose value is tied to location and status rather than its conditions, the wellbeing or stability of its tenants, its impact on the neighbourhood. By this system, boarded up and empty houses with front yards full of weeds are somehow worth more than deeply-loved homes that have witnessed the joy and pain of generations and yield harvests, or seasons of flowers.
After World War II, council housing was scattered across the city in the belief that mixed neighbourhoods worked best, that social cohesion was important to our greater good and happiness. As inflated housing markets and their related financial instruments become the primary drivers of our bubble economy, we increasingly face once again the vile beliefs that money should ensure you do not share a hallway or even a street with people of less wealth. That money is its own social good, justifying empty homes while people are homeless, a surfeit of luxury homes while everyone else crams themselves into shared flats and ever-more constrained lives. An excoriating report from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing demanded an end to the commodification and financialisation of housing in January 2017. It cited the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, where vacant units increased by 40 per cent between 2013 and 2014 as housing prices continued to skyrocket far beyond the ability of local residents to pay.
Yet somehow it is not such empty homes, and the hollowing out of life and community that they represent, that attracts criticism. Instead it is what remains of social housing in this market that is portrayed as anomalous, strange, frightening. A place to warehouse the most vulnerable, considered as disposable as the dreams of earlier generations that a better world was possible, until both can be pushed out of sight and out of mind. In the meantime, they cut the funding for such housing to the very bones, knowing its decay will only hasten the calls for its disappearance.
Grenfell represents what Rob Nixon calls spectacular violence, a flaming inferno brought about by this worldview with its austerity, deregulation and crisis. But it is founded on the violence of day-to-day neglect of the social infrastructure that belongs to us, a heritage of earlier struggle. The violence of disrespect and utter disregard for life shown to the residents of social housing. Ben Okri writes:
their deaths happened long
Before. It happened in the minds of people who never
Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened
In the laws. They died because money could be saved
Slow violence is the more deep-rooted, though it somehow seems invisible to those who have never been poor. It is a violence faced in the hard choices between what to buy and what to do without, because paying rent leaves so little. The daily anxiety about work, debt, judgement, punitive welfare regimes, environmental injustices, discrimination. The isolation. The depression caused by dingy walls and building neglect and oppressive rules that assume that poor people need controlling. The lack of time for family, the inability to provide for them. The sickness. The cold and the damp. The lack of power to change fortune or surroundings. The day-in-day-out surviving when life should be so much more. It eats at health, sickens the spirit, destroys just as surely as fire. Death by a thousand cuts, this violence makes us old before our time and explodes between us instead of upwards when there is no hope that resistance can create a change.
What will happen now if our growing resistance does not create change? The housing policies of the Tory government will inflict ever-deeper violence of both kinds on the most vulnerable, shored up by moralising around cheap ideas of self-help and responsibility. On 24 June a Guardian headline said it all in quoting a new report from Shelter: ‘Housing Crisis Threatens a Million Families with Eviction by 2020’. There is little that is ‘new’ in this new housing crisis, just new depths to the cuts to benefits already cut to the bone, new breadth to their reach to tear away basic necessities from more and more people. We are watching a car crash in slow motion. Rough sleeping has already doubled since the Tories took power; it is already more than councils can handle. More than a million families are currently on the waiting lists. The Homelessness Monitor – a five-year study providing a yearly snapshot of conditions by Crisis and an academic collaboration of Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox and Beth Watts – tracks these numbers, each of which represents a life damaged, turned inside-out. Under current policy, anyone not already securely settled will be lucky to be part of Generation Rent. The good fortune of your own room even if you are sharing a flat with strangers for all of your days, or of short-term tenancies with no protection against rent raises or evictions, or of always living cramped into a few rooms with your parents and your children. After all, you could be on the street. God forbid you break up with your partner, or seek to escape abuse, or contemplate a move for a new job or a new start.
Those who most deserve society’s compassion and care are caught in the crosshairs of rich politicians’ hatred. Austerity has meant benefit caps that cause untold misery and ensure more and more people cannot afford rapidly rising rents. They cut off the younger generation almost entirely. Policy now forces anyone under thirty-five into shared housing. Local councils once had a duty to provide many of them with social housing – due to complex needs, recovery from abuse, mental-health issues, problems with addiction – in shared lets with little to no capacity for support services. The bedroom tax ensures that kids will grow up without being able to visit parents when they separate, that carers can no longer stay over when those who are old and sick are in need, that grandparents can no longer care for grandchildren. Benefit caps in fact mean that even being adjudged ‘worthy’ of housing benefit is no guarantee you will be able to afford social-housing rents. All of this is now shaping how housing associations and councils are planning new housing, enshrining this punitive austerity in brick and mortar to further deform our future.
Punitive cuts to ‘disability’ and Work Capacity Assessments devastate lives, the rise in suicides documented in notes and letters provided as evidence at their inquests continues to make the news. Funding cuts (and Labour’s previous lack of spine) has forced a shut-down and sell-off of libraries and community centres and local colleges where people socialised, found warmth, fed the mind and the imagination. They forced the closing of women’s centres and refuges and emergency shelters, where people found safety. Death and damage everywhere, we already stand in ruins.
These are days of gross inequality and the criminalisation of poverty, of newspapers hawking a hatred and fear of poor people, working people, people of colour no matter how many generations they have lived here, people who have immigrated here no matter what dreams they bring with them or what UK-funded and armed war they are fleeing. We are losing in the Tory government’s epic battle to redistribute money from the poor to give to the rich.
But this election may have been the beginning of the change. We watch to see what comes of this time, whether this shaky coalition can stand, what a new election will bring. Labour’s manifesto changed the game when it was leaked, inspired people, brought hope back into these tired and weak politics that engraved meaningless words on stones to battle a ravenous politics of asset-stripping at any cost. As Jonathan Pye said in his broadcast after the election, New Labour is dead. Then he started singing.
The mass building of council houses, the removal of restrictions on councils building, regulating the private rented sector to secure tenancies, restrain rent raises and ensure adequate conditions, housing-first provision for rough sleepers, reversing benefit sanctions and caps, changing a planning framework that guarantees obscene profits to developers and so much more … the holistic nature of the proposed changes is inspiring. It undercuts the idea of housing as something to generate profits, housing as commodity.
This is the first thing that must be done. Stop the worst of the violence, clear the way to what matters.
We must start there, though, only that we aim higher, do better. That we think about how to make of housing not a commodity nor just a shelter, but a home. That we think of how that process happens, how we are able to take space and make it our own as households, and more collectively in our buildings or estates or neighbourhoods. That we take seriously how home nurtures our selves and futures. That housing associations and councils rip up the petty rules and regulations that treat their tenants as the enemy. That we look at sweat equity, self-build, cooperatives and land trusts. That we transform our unused and unloved spaces to permanent benefit to the community. That we think about how sustainability connects to the wealth of local and natural materials that could be used to retrofit and build or the integration with green space and gardens or the green jobs that could be created. That we think about how we each connect to our home and through it to a vibrant hybrid culture and to a broad and welcoming community where we can grow old gracefully while space remains for our children and their children. Ownership is not necessary for this; rather, secure tenancies and management structures granting the ability to shape our spaces according to needs and desires, to try new things, fail and try again, to build and paint and transform. It sounds utopian until you remember we are conditioned to think of housing as an asset to be managed, not a space that to support our passions and our dreams. Knitted into communities, houses should redefine sustainability and living well upon the earth. Examples shine all over the world. We know how to do this.
In the UK there are beginnings. Many are now decades old. The self-build council houses that architect Walter Segal helped create in Lewisham, South London. The 1980s squatters who occupied decayed buildings and rebuilt them. LILAC, the affordable straw-bale homes within a cooperative community in Leeds. The documentary Estate shows what beauty and community growth became possible when residents were allowed to fully inhabit and transform their estate through the otherwise protracted and immensely damaging process of its decanting and eventual destruction. This kind of resident control could be facilitated in the many vibrant and innovative ways developed to animate and open up public space, exemplified best perhaps by the work of Jan Gehl. Such innovation too often serves development capital in the pursuit of increased property values and the desire to attract new and wealthy residents from elsewhere. Imagine how it could serve instead to create beautiful spaces, stronger communities for those who have too long endured public space become grim, often dangerous through cuts. There are other inspiring projects from which to grow and to link a multitude of creative and community-building projects from the grassroots documented by the team at Participatory Cities, who also did great work in Norwood as part of the Open Works project.
There is the work of Jane Adams, Lyn Lofland, Clare Copper-Marcus, Colin Ward, Gordon Cullen, Kevin Lynch, Kimberley Dovey, Christopher Alexander, as well as those continuing a radical tradition of community-building such as Margaret Ledwith, or the principles emerging from Permaculture and Green Care. More broadly there are the vibrant land trusts in the US built by low-income communities of colour like Dudley Street or Trust South LA. None of this touches the city of Marinaleda in Spain, what is happening officially in Bolivia or Uruguay, or the widespread squatting movements and urban and rural land occupations of Latin America. These are only a handful of inspiring spatial movements I am aware of. There are so many more. All this is possible.
But we live under logic that justifies buildings boarded up, left to fall apart, investment flats built to sit empty, while crisis rages and people must choose between housing they cannot afford, housing that could kill them, and no housing at all.
Yet it is not just our housing, but the manner of our occupying it that needs rethinking. The relearning of democracy and the opening to creativity in creating a home and a new environment is the hard part. As for paying for it – is it not a home? Is it a second or third house, country house, investment house, occasional-party-in-London house? Tax the hell out of it. Make it impossible to own such things altogether, at least until everyone has a home. No one should have to look to real estate in fear of old age. Our property should never set us to feeding on one another, how it should work to support life, not strip it down and cast it away.
We know how to do this. As Ben Okri continued in his poem for Grenfell, ‘let a world-changing thought flower’.
Andrea Gibbons has worked with Latin American refugees on asylum and immigration issues, organised tenants against slum conditions and displacement, helped build a land trust, and edited the noir imprint Switchblade at PM Press. She recently finished a PhD in Geography at the LSE on race and the formation of Los Angeles (and Los Angeles in the formation of race). She is an associate editor of the journal CITY, a committed contributor to drpop.net, and her own website with writings fictional and non- can be found at writingcities.com. She is now busy starting up a community project next to the Limehouse DLR.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.