The Grenfell tower fire forced a public debate on housing inequality in London. Tenants have long been at the mercy of landlords, private and social. But resistance is growing.
In the early hours on 14th June more than 70 people died when fire engulfed a 24-storey tower block in west London. More than 350 firefighters worked to extinguish the flames over several hours.
Hundreds were trapped in the upper floors of the building while the fire raged, including 6-month-old Leena Belkadi. The baby girl was found dead in her mother’s arms in a stairwell between the 19th and 20th floors.
Grenfell tower was home to a mixed community of working-class families, young couples, refugees, migrants, elderly residents living alone.
The final death toll is unknown. There are fears that unregistered migrants who lived in the block may never be identified. Just 71 victims have been identified so far. In June the Metropolitan police said it could take months to identify everyone. Last week the Met said: “Based on all the work carried out so far and the expert advice, it is highly unlikely there is anyone who remains inside Grenfell Tower.”
An inquiry has been set up to investigate the circumstances around the fire. The devastation and death caused exposed festering problems of neglect and mismanagement by Kensington and Chelsea Council. Hundreds of residents and survivors are still homeless more than five months on. Early November central government published a report which criticises council leaders for their lack of humanity. In a statement Sajid Javid, communities and local government secretary, said the council response to the fire was “sluggish and chaotic”.
But the government’s criticism of rotten local politics came too late. Residents and survivors fear the inquiry will ignore deep rooted problems of housing and inequality in London. Problems that created the conditions for the fire.
After all, residents tried to warn authorities years before the fire in June.
The Grenfell Action Group formed in 2010 and repeatedly raised safety concerns about the tower block. They published countless blogs outlining mismanagement and neglect at Grenfell tower and other housing estates in Kensington. They campaigned for decent housing and challenged the rise of luxury housing developments and managed decline of social homes. Their blog supported struggles against changes that would make London unlivable for all but the rich.
Their work is not unusual – across London radical housing groups fight for the rights of tenants in a hostile housing market. Social housing is scarce. Councils are broke and ill-equipped (and sometimes unwilling) to support people moving in and out of poverty, families with complex needs. Average private rents are high.
After the Grenfell tower fire, what will change?
Plenty, if London’s grassroots housing activists have their way.
We spoke to Izzy Koksal from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), a community group from south London, about their work challenging housing injustice. They are one of many radical groups working on housing inequality, racism, poverty, sex worker rights and migrant rights in London. Embedded in local communities, they are a mix of seasoned activists, precarious workers, and families moving in and out of poverty.
HASL is part of the London Coalition Against Poverty, known as LCAP, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The coalition is made up of local housing support and action groups from across the London boroughs.
Since 2013, HASL has organised around and blogged about the daily housing injustices they encounter at the hands of local councils and private landlords.
Below is an edited version of our written Q&A with Izzy, published in three parts, where she tells us about the group’s work, challenges they face and offers advice for readers interested in setting up their own housing solidarity groups.
What is Housing Action Southwark And Lambeth? Who is Involved?
Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth is a local community group made up of people facing housing problems. We meet twice a month to support each other, organize action around our personal housing issues, and campaign for housing rights.
Most of our members are working class women of colour, migrant women, and their children. We have lots of children at our meetings. We’re thinking of different ways to involve them in what we do. We want to create something like the Radical Monarchs, an alternative Brownies in California. This summer we trialled our first homework club.
We also have supporters without immediate housing problems, but who are concerned about housing inequality, poverty and gentrification. In London, everyone is very aware that they could face serious housing problems at any moment.
Taking on dodgy landlords and council bullies
Common housing problems members face include overcrowding, pending homelessness, difficulty accessing housing help from the council, being housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Families can be stuck for years in cramped, expensive temporary accommodation while waiting for council housing.
Then there are dodgy landlords. Recently, one landlord tried to steal a member’s deposit. Another landlord harassed a female member and threatened to throw away her belongings.
To combat some of this, we accompany each other to homelessness assessments. This is where a housing officer investigates your case to see if the council owes you a homeless duty. If you are a single homeless person, council officers decide whether you are vulnerable enough to receive help with your housing. Our members have experienced bullying and gatekeeping during these sessions (Gatekeeping is when the council prevents people accessing services they’re entitled to).
Attending assessments with support makes the whole process slightly less terrifying. It means we can politely challenge gatekeeping and make a record of what’s happened.
There’s other work too. We help each other fill out forms and source good housing lawyers. We give each other moral support, understanding and anger. Other times, we occupy the town hall. For example, when one of our members was housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation and her children forced to take three buses to school, we marched to the town hall. We demanded the family be given a home close to school. After 30 minutes of us being there, suitable temporary accommodation was found.
HASL is over four years old now, a huge achievement for a group organised voluntarily by people dealing with homelessness, insecure housing, medical issues, childcare commitments, paid work and other stresses. On top of that, some members now have to worry about Brexit. “Will they throw us out?” a member asked at a recent meeting.
Why was Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth set up?
Where you have people suffering, living in poverty, unable to access secure homes or discriminated against because of their race, class or migration status, housing groups are vital.
Getting help when you are homelessness is made so difficult by local councils. Accessing basic housing help is impossible to do alone. There are even greater barriers when you don’t have English as a first language, which is the case for many of our members.
Gatekeeping when you face homelessness isn’t a problem unique to Lambeth and Southwark. All over London, people going through hard times struggle to access the most basic housing rights. Grenfell tower residents are experiencing that same struggle now.
We had hoped that Kensington & Chelsea council would make the re-housing process as swift and sympathetic as possible for Grenfell residents. Yet news reports suggest they are still struggling to get the right housing support.
The re-housing problems faced by Grenfell residents echo what our members experience. Things like the confusion and mixed messages from the council about whether people will be housed in temporary accommodation in the borough. Arrogance from individual councillors. Councils collectively failing to listen to what people need.
When the law falls short
While having access to good housing lawyers is important (if you qualify for legal aid), the legal process can be slow, stressful and limited. We organise collectively to complement legal action. One HASL member was congratulated by her lawyer for winning her case with the council. He admitted that his own role had been minimal!
This particular member was a survivor of domestic violence who had endured 30 years of abuse, yet Southwark council initially decided she was not vulnerable enough to qualify for help. She will soon be moving into her new council flat, having navigated the homelessness process with HASL support. She would have given up without our help, she says. In turn, she has since supported some friends in a domestic violence refuge to access their homelessness rights. The collective support, understanding and determination we have for each other is special and inspiring.