London fire survivors wonder where they’ll live
Promised replacement homes, former residents of Grenfell Tower reckon with Britain’s severe shortage of public housing
For nearly five hours last month, Antonio Roncolato waited to be rescued as a monstrous blaze consumed the London high-rise he had called home for more than a quarter-century. When firefighters found him, he was wearing swimming goggles to protect his eyes from the advancing smoke and flames.
Now he’s waiting again — for the replacement home that authorities promised him to compensate for the fire at Grenfell Tower, which rendered him and hundreds of others homeless and killed at least 80 people.
So far, the wait has been in vain.
“Should I receive something below what we had?” asked the 57year-old restaurant manager. “No way. I’m saying the same level. At least the same level.”
But in London, where affordable housing has become an endangered species, that is proving exceptionally difficult to find.
Of the 158 families who survived the blaze and have been offered new homes by authorities, 14 had accepted as of Wednesday. Most of the others remain in hotels, having declined options they see as falling short of what they had at Grenfell. Roncolato is hardly surprised. “Of course they don’t have them,” Roncolato said. “London is a place where they build and build and build — but for the richest and well-off.”
The Grenfell fire illustrated in searing fashion the perils of life in Britain’s public housing highrises, where years of unheeded warnings, slashed costs and deregulation all added up to a tragedy unlike any Britain has seen in at least a century.
But the aftermath has shined a spotlight on a different problem with Britain’s strained-to-thebreaking-point housing system — a severe shortage of affordable options that has left people desperate for a roof over their heads.
The lack of viable alternatives helps explain why there has been no mass exodus from Britain’s public housing towers, even after cladding at 190 buildings has failed fire-safety tests ordered in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.
Until the cladding is removed, the buildings could be vulnerable. But at least residents have a home in a public housing system suffering from a grievous mismatch between supply and demand.
“The overall quantity of social housing has declined and the number of people needing it has risen,” said Anne Power, a social-policy professor at the London School of Economics. “So the pressures on social housing have expanded enormously.”
The pressure can be seen in the statistics, which show that some 1.4 million families are on waiting lists for public housing across England and Scotland. Once people are on the list, their wait times can stretch well over a year.
As opportunities to live in public housing have dwindled, the number of people in substandard private housing has grown as rents rapidly rise. The ranks of the homeless have also surged, increasing by 17 percent over the past five years, according to the housing advocacy group Shelter.
“Many local authorities simply don’t have enough affordable accommodation for those on low incomes,” Anne Baxendale, Shelter’s director of policy, said in a statement. “It’s a similar story across all London boroughs and the country more widely.”
How it got to be that way is a story decades in the making. As of 1980, about a third of homes in Britain were considered public housing. Today, that number has been cut nearly in half.
Starting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, successive Conservative governments have pushed people away from public housing in an effort to reduce dependence on government.
Most critically, Thatcher allowed public-housing tenants the right to buy their homes at deep discounts. Conservatives celebrate the program as a boon to social mobility.
But housing that was once reserved for society’s most vulnerable has become unaffordable as it has been sold up the property ladder.
“One of the consequences of [right-to-buy] is to turn a council property into a speculative freefor-all,” Power said.
In the meantime, budgets for local authorities have been slashed, and construction of new public housing has dramatically slowed since the 1960s and 1970s, when a building boom yielded hundreds of concrete-block towers, including Grenfell.
After the fire, London Mayor Sadiq Khan floated the idea of demolishing those towers, writing in the Guardian that “it may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.”
Khan said his proposal was contingent on new public housing being built to replace the old. But Power and other housing experts are leery of any moves that could further reduce the supply, especially in booming areas such as London, where low-income people are already being crowded out.
“We should not be demolishing social housing,” she said. “We can’t afford to replace it. But we also have to be a lot more careful about how we upgrade it.”
Experts say it was an upgrade at Grenfell that may have contributed to the fire’s astonishingly fast spread. Within minutes, the blaze evolved from a shortcircuiting fourth-floor refrigerator to an inferno that scorched all 24 floors and burned with such intensity that authorities say they may never know the final death toll.
Investigators have said they believe the building’s exterior cladding, added during a recent renovation and cheaper than a fire-resistant model, helped transmit the blaze from one floor to the next.
To many residents, it was just the latest evidence of mismanagement and negligence that they say they had been warning about for years.
“You destroyed my house,” Roncolato said of the officials he blames for the failures. “Your negligence, incompetence and the cost-cutting — you killed people.”
Roncolato moved into Grenfell in 1990 with his then-wife as they were expecting a child.
“It was very simple, but we made it up very, very nice,” he said. “I was very happy there. Beautiful view, beautiful everything.”
He said the surrounding area gained immensely from the surge of interest — much of it American — that followed the 1999 film “Notting Hill,” starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
“Suddenly, there were new cafes, new restaurants. It became very trendy,” Roncolato said.
But now he worries that he and his son won’t be able to stay in the area they love.
He has declined two offers of new housing — one outside the borough, the other in a basement on a busy road — and is still waiting for authorities to make good on their vows to rehouse people locally in units comparable with the ones they had at Grenfell.
“We pay our rent, council tax, road tax, parking permit, whatever needs to be done,” he said. “I’m not expecting anything for free. I just want what I had before.”
“I’m not expecting anything for free. I just want what I had before.” Antonio Roncolato, a restaurant manager who lived in Grenfell Tower for more than 25 years
Police enforce a cordon as flames engulf the London high-rise last month. Of the 158 families who have been offered homes by authorities, 14 had accepted as of Wednesday.
Protesters demonstrate in London days after the fire. As opportunities to live in public housing have dwindled, the number of people in substandard private housing has grown as rents rapidly rise.