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

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY GRIFF WITTE AND KARLA ADAM griff.witte@wash­post.com karla.adam@wash­post.com

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

DANIEL LEAL-OLI­VAS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

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.

JACK TAYLOR/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

An­to­nio Ron­co­lato

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