On June 14, 2017, I saw flames engulf Grenfell Tower – a 24-story building in West London – in the area where I have lived for over three decades. I still remember the smell of burning, the onlookers screaming, the faces at the windows and the people crying for help. The fire killed 72 people. At times like this, you remain numb, utterly helpless. You wonder if this nightmare is really happening.
As the reports of the Bronx fire came in, I knew the families and friends of the residents of this building, as well as the local community, would experience the same trauma. They would cling to the hope that their loved ones would survive. And in their shock, they would wonder how the fire came about.
We don’t yet know all of the circumstances of the Bronx fire, but there are already some striking similarities to those in Grenfell. Much like in London, the New York fire started in an apartment, there was no working fire door and the smoke then spread through the stairwell to each floor.
When the fire broke out at Grenfell Tower, it shed light on whether the construction, renovation and management of the block, as well as the existing building regulations, were adequate, and in particular how the exterior cladding – placed on the building only for aesthetic purposes – significantly contributed to the speed and spread of the fire. These issues sparked a broader fight for housing equality that continues today.
Other similarities between the fires in London and the Bronx show that race and class need to be part of the conversation about these disasters. The New York block contained affordable housing and is located in an area of the Bronx that is home to a large Muslim and migrant community. Indeed, many of those in the building were immigrants from the West African nation of The Gambia.
Similarly, 85% of residents who died at Grenfell Tower, a social housing tower, were from ethnic minorities. And nearly half of the victims were adults or children with disabilities. No personal emergency evacuation plan was in place for these vulnerable residents. We face social inequalities every day of our lives, yet the Grenfell Public Inquiry chose to exclude issues of class and race from its mandate.
But the survey revealed a miserable culture in Britain’s construction industry, in which thousands of households across the country live in fear in their homes. Tenants who had no prior knowledge that their homes were covered in flammable materials faced enormous costs to have it removed. On Monday, Housing Secretary Michael Gove, under increased pressure to act on the siding crisis, announced new legislation protecting tenants from the costs of all post-Grenfell security flaws.
In the UK, the outsourcing of utilities over the years has diminished liability and scrutiny, and poor building regulations make the problem worse. The use of flammable materials was hidden from view and an unnecessary cost-cutting exercise by the local authority – one of the wealthiest in Britain. One of the main contractors of the Tenant Management Organization saved £ 126,000 (US $ 171,000) by switching to a cheaper and more hazardous type of coating for renovation. And former tenants said they were intimidated by housing managers into accepting renovations they feared a safety risk.
In the case of the Bronx fire, investigators are investigating the possibility that it was started by a faulty electric heater. Building fire alarms and a series of open doors are also on the radar of investigators and officials investigating one of the worst fires in the city’s history. Families bereaved by the Bronx fire will now ask similar questions to Grenfell four years ago. Each member of this community will be affected by the loss in their own way; the charred building will be a daily reminder; a once-occupied place in the classroom, a colleague you no longer see, the person who no longer serves you in the store, drives your bus. It leaves a gaping hole in so many survivors’ lives.
Our fight for justice is based on the fact that everyone should have safe and decent housing in which to live. It should be a right, not a privilege. Your home is meant to be a haven of peace. The safest place for you and your family. But all too often, the most vulnerable are given the keys to their homes – usually built and maintained to minimum standards – and left to fend for themselves.
There are so many other things authorities need to do to keep people informed on how to stay safe in their homes and this should be a wake-up call for all buildings being managed. At a minimum, there should be a mandatory element of any rental agreement as to what to do if a fire breaks out in their home and appropriate fire doors installed, and this should be supported by regular public information announcements.
Today my heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the 17 men, women and children who died in the New York City fire. We need to change our mindset and see these buildings not just as real estate, but as people’s homes. A fair standard of security in our homes, whether for the poor or the rich, should exist – because all of our lives are valued equally.
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