Hundreds of people in Parliament
Square pay tribute to the victims of Grenfell Tower. Photograph: Wiktor
In 2013 my predecessor, Raquel
Rolnik, the UN-appointed special rapporteur on the right to housing, visited the UK and
warned that the government’s roll-back on investment in social housing and its
emphasis instead on investment in the private rental market was having a
deleterious effect on the availability and adequacy of social housing stock.
Last April, alongside several colleagues, I communicated human rights concerns (pdf)
to the UK government about the impact of austerity measures on housing
standards. And after that a UN committee of independent human rights experts expressed similar concerns and
recommended that the government "take corrective measures to address bad housing
or sub-standard housing conditions …”. We were all echoing the voices of
thousands of residents who had been systematically and repeatedly raising their
concerns with their councils and the government.
But the UK government rejected
both the message and
the messengers. This was based in part on the its unswerving determination to
spurn government-led housing solutions in exchange for those that are market
and profit driven. And despite having committed itself to a slew of
internationally recognised human rights, including the right to adequate
housing and the right to life, successive governments have more or less sworn-off the international human rights system as one that better applies to developing countries than to higher
Perhaps in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy that
killed at least 79 people – a devastating illustration of the impact of
substandard housing on the lives of poor people – local councils and central
government will begin to recognise that international human rights standards
regarding adequate housing are not hogwash, but are in place precisely to
preserve human life.
From my vantage point,
Grenfell Tower is also emblematic of a global phenomenon where rich and poor
live side by side on starkly unequal terms and where housing is rarely viewed
as a right, but instead promoted as a commodity.
Grenfell Tower is located in the Royal Borough of
Kensington and Chelsea. Not only is it the most expensive borough in the
country by some estimates,
it is considered prime real estate for foreign investors,
many of whom don’t live in the borough. While more than 1,200 properties sit vacant in
the borough, the residents of Grenfell lived on top of each other in a densely
populated, 24-storey building. The exterior was refurbished to make it less of
an eyesore for more affluent onlookers using a cheap material banned in a number of countries including, reportedly,
in the UK for
The management of Grenfell Tower was handed over to
the private sector. Kensington Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO)
is responsible for managing the tower block as well as 10,000 other units [pdf]
and it is paid handsomely to do so. Apparently, KCTMO’s responsibilities did
not include heeding the concerns of the UN, let alone those of the tenant
association, which for more than four years had expressed distress about fire
safety in the building.
As horrific and singular as
the Grenfell Tower fire was,
it represents the new world order. The idea of housing as a social good for
which governments are responsible has largely been abandoned. There is an
ever-growing list of cities where governments prop up the financialisation of
residential real estate, promoting the idea that housing is a place to safely
park huge amounts of capital and grow wealth without any investment in local
communities. This is despite the fact that it pushes up the cost of housing and
drives out low-income residents in cities around the world, including Hong
Kong, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Sydney, Melbourne and Vancouver.
Allowing big corporations to manage the needs of
tenants is also not unique to Grenfell Tower. The Blackstone Group – the
world’s largest real estate private equity firm – spent $10bn to purchase
repossessed properties in the US after the 2008 financial crisis, and emerged
as the largest rental landlord in the country. Tenants in their units complain
that their needs and concerns regarding the adequacy of their housing fall on
deaf ears, with management companies accountable to investors rather than to
If failing to uphold human
rights was, at least in part, the cause of the Grenfell Tower disaster, then
surely upholding internationally recognised human rights is the way forward.
Only a human rights approach lays out universal standards of what constitutes
"adequate” housing, such as protecting against physical threats like fire and
Only a human rights approach lays out what’s required
after a disaster like Grenfell – that tenants must be provided immediate
alternate accommodation in their existing community. Only a human rights
approach is crystal clear that it is governments that are responsible to
low-income and marginalised populations, and that this will require regulating
tenant management companies and other third parties to ensure they are not
jeopardising the state’s human rights obligations.
Grenfell Tower will remain a symbol of what has gone
wrong in housing for poor people. It’s a horrible human tragedy, but it should
also be remembered as a human rights tragedy.
* Original source.