Many remain in hotels waiting for promised housing
People protest ahead of a meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council at Kensington Town Hall in west London, Wednesday July 19, 2017, the local authority in control of response to the recent Grenfell Tower fire. The fire at the Grenfell Tower residential bloc left dozens dead. (Ben Stevens/PA via AP)
By GRIFF WHITE and KARLA ADAM, Dayton Daily News/The Washington Post
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.
“I’m not expecting anything for free. I just want what I had before,”said Antonio Roncolato, who lived in Grenfell Tower for more than 25 years.
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 57-year-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, just 14 had accepted as of a few weeks ago. 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 high-rises, 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-the-breaking-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.
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.
Experts say it was an upgrade at Grenfell that may have contributed to the fire’s astonishingly fast spread. 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.
Roncolato moved into Grenfell in 1990 with his then-wife as they were expecting a child. 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.”
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