A Place to Call Home

by Andrea Gibbons





A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision that there should be 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. A home should be a place of strength and safety.

A home should not be what kills us.

Yet Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoking 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 now 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 now, 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.

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 WWII, 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. What remains of social housing is portrayed now 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.[1] But it is founded on the slow violence of day-to-day neglect of the social infrastructure that belongs to all of us as the heritage of earlier struggle. The slow 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 saw

Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened

In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.[2]

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 the 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 as hundreds of thousands wait years on lists for social housing. Turns out that being part of Generation Rent is the luckiest prospect. The good fortune of 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.

Those who most deserve society’s compassion and care remain caught in the crosshairs of rich politicians’ hatred. Austerity has meant benefit caps that cause untold misery and ensure more and more people can no longer afford rapidly rising rents. They cut off the younger generation almost entirely. 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. Punitive cuts to ‘disability’ along with Work Capacity Assessments devastate lives. Funding (and Labour’s previous lack of spine) forced the shutting down and selling 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 the days of gross inequality and the criminalisation of poverty, days 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 before he started singing, New Labour is dead. It is so exciting to think where we could go from here.

The massive building of council houses, the removal of restrictions on councils building, the regulation of the private rented sector to secure tenancies and restrain rent raises and ensure adequate conditions, housing first provision for rough sleepers, a reversal of benefit sanctions and caps, a change to a planning framework that guarantees obscene profits to developers and so much more … the holistic nature of the proposed changes is inspiring. It begins to undercut the idea of housing as something to generate maximum profits, housing as commodity.

I would hope, though, that we start there only to aim higher, to 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 our futures. That we look at sweat equity, self-build, cooperatives and land trusts. That we open up all of our unused and unloved spaces to transformation for 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 then their children. Ownership is not necessarily needed for any of this, rather secure tenancies and management structures that grant the ability to shape our spaces according to our needs and our desires, to try new things and fail and try again, to build and paint and transform. It sounds utopian until you remember we are conditioned to think of housing as assets to be managed not spaces that should support our passions and our dreams. Knitted into communities, they should redefine sustainability and living well upon the earth. Examples shine all over this country, and many more across the world.

We know how to do this.

Instead we live under a logic that justifies buildings boarded up and left to fall apart, investment flats built to sit empty, while crisis rages and people have to choose between housing that they cannot afford, housing that is dangerous and 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 house, country house, investment house, occasional party in London house? Tax the hell out of it, maybe even make it impossible to own such things altogether until everyone has a home. A few steps in thinking how our ideas of property should work to support life, not strip it down and cast it away.

As Ben Okri continued in his poem for Grenfell, ‘let a world-changing thought flower’.

[1] Nixon, Rob. 2009. ‘Neoliberalism, Slow Violence, and the Environmental Picaresque’. MFS Modern Fiction Studies 55 (3): 443-467.

[2]Grenfell Tower, June, 2017: a poem by Ben OkriFinancial Times, 23 June 2017,

 

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