In 2013 my predecessor, Raquel Rolnik, the UN-appointed special rapporteur on the right to housing, visited the UK and warned that the government’s roll-back on investment in social housing and its emphasis instead on investment in the private rental market was having a deleterious effect on the availability and adequacy of social housing stock.
Last April, alongside several colleagues, I communicated human rights concerns (pdf) to the UK government about the impact of austerity measures on housing standards. And after that a UN committee of independent human rights experts expressed similar concerns and recommendedthat the government “take corrective measures to address bad housing or sub-standard housing conditions …”. We were all echoing the voices of thousands of residents who had been systematically and repeatedly raising their concerns with their councils and the government.
But the UK government rejected both the message and the messengers. This was based in part on the its unswerving determination to spurn government-led housing solutions in exchange for those that are market and profit driven. And despite having committed itself to a slew of internationally recognised human rights, including the right to adequate housing and the right to life, successive governments have more or less sworn-off the international human rights system as one that better applies to developing countries than to higher kingdoms.
Perhaps in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy that killed at least 79 people – a devastating illustration of the impact of substandard housing on the lives of poor people – local councils and central government will begin to recognise that international human rights standards regarding adequate housing are not hogwash, but are in place precisely to preserve human life.
From my vantage point, Grenfell Tower is also emblematic of a global phenomenon where rich and poor live side by side on starkly unequal terms and where housing is rarely viewed as a right, but instead promoted as a commodity.
Grenfell Tower is located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Not only is it the most expensive borough in the country by some estimates, it is considered prime real estate for foreign investors, many of whom don’t live in the borough. While more than 1,200 properties sit vacant in the borough, the residents of Grenfell lived on top of each other in a densely populated, 24-storey building. The exterior was refurbished to make it less of an eyesore for more affluent onlookers using a cheap material banned in a number of countries including, reportedly, in the UK for its flammability.
The management of Grenfell Tower was handed over to the private sector. Kensington Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) is responsible for managing the tower block as well as 10,000 other units [pdf] and it is paid handsomely to do so. Apparently, KCTMO’s responsibilities did not include heeding the concerns of the UN, let alone those of the tenant association, which for more than four years had expressed distress about fire safety in the building.
The idea of housing as a social good for which governments are responsible has largely been abandoned.
As horrific and singular as the Grenfell Tower fire was, it represents the new world order. The idea of housing as a social good for which governments are responsible has largely been abandoned. There is an ever-growing list of cities where governments prop up the financialisation of residential real estate, promoting the idea that housing is a place to safely park huge amounts of capital and grow wealth without any investment in local communities. This is despite the fact that it pushes up the cost of housing and drives out low-income residents in cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Sydney, Melbourne and Vancouver.
Allowing big corporations to manage the needs of tenants is also not unique to Grenfell Tower. The Blackstone Group – the world’s largest real estate private equity firm – spent $10bn to purchase repossessed properties in the US after the 2008 financial crisis, and emerged as the largest rental landlord in the country. Tenants in their units complain that their needs and concerns regarding the adequacy of their housing fall on deaf ears, with management companies accountable to investors rather than to them.
If failing to uphold human rights was, at least in part, the cause of the Grenfell Tower disaster, then surely upholding internationally recognised human rights is the way forward. Only a human rights approach lays out universal standards of what constitutes “adequate” housing, such as protecting against physical threats like fire and floods.
Only a human rights approach lays out what’s required after a disaster like Grenfell – that tenants must be provided immediate alternate accommodation in their existing community. Only a human rights approach is crystal clear that it is governments that are responsible to low-income and marginalised populations, and that this will require regulating tenant management companies and other third parties to ensure they are not jeopardising the state’s human rights obligations.
Grenfell Tower will remain a symbol of what has gone wrong in housing for poor people. It’s a horrible human tragedy, but it should also be remembered as a human rights tragedy.
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