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Fire at Grenfell

They say eighty people died, but others have claimed that in one flat alone forty charred remains were found huddled together. They say everyone has been offered rehousing in the London area, but there are rumors some residents were sent as far as Preston in Lancashire. They say everyone affected has been given 5,500 pounds to help start their lives again – 500 in cash, and 5k in a bank account – but is this everyone who was registered as living in a flat? Everyone who was documented? Everyone who was ‘legal’? Everyone who owns a bank account? Everyone who can understand English?

Grenfell Tower happened over a month ago now, and the image of that ugly, concrete box burning people alive will never leave me. Many, many times I’ve been past those buildings in Kensington, glanced up at the enormous, gray, ugly stark architecture and wondered what the hell would happen if it went up in smoke and I was asleep on the top floor. Apparently the residents wondered that too. They wondered where the fire alarms and water sprinklers and fire escapes were. They wondered if one staircase would be sufficient for the residents of 129 flats spread over 24 floors. They demanded answers. They were ignored.

Americans don’t think about Grenfell anymore. People don’t talk about it as life (and Trump) moves on. But I think about it, because I lived in one of those council flats in London for several years – on the seventh floor. I was a leaseholder – as some of the residents of Grenfell were – which meant I owned the flat, but the ground it was on was “leased” from the local council. We lived alongside council residents who rented their properties from the council for a reduced rate – in what Americans call public housing, or ‘projects’. As far as I could tell, being a leaseholder basically meant we paid the same rates as council tenants paid for rent, but we paid it in “service charges”. We were never quite sure what these service charges were for, but they were steep – around 200 – 300 pounds a month, while we were also billed for “major works charges” – larger scale renovations where the council would choose a contractor without consulting us leaseholders or council tenants, and simply bill the leaseholders. For a new elevator, I was charged around five and a half thousand pounds, and was given a year to pay. For a new roof, about the same. For gas pipes they wanted to put into the road, the same. I ended up paying more to the council than I paid to my mortgage company, and yet the flat – in a shoddy estate just off the side of a railway in North London – never looked significantly better. About the only tangible change I saw was an intercom system which meant I didn’t have to run down seven flights of stairs to let people into my apartment.

There are so many, many disturbing things about being a leaseholder and a council tenant, and the endless bills for shit which never got done was one of them. The other was that however great that hardwood floor you installed looked, however gorgeous that new kitchen – the fact remained we were living in substandard housing which had lead pipes plumbers couldn’t cut into (despite endless leaks) because they’d calcified and slicing into them would poison the water supply and they couldn’t be arsed to redo the whole building. These buildings typically have zero water pressure above the second floor, and repairs take months, and months, and months to complete – although the bills for these same repairs, usually before they are commenced, are swift and immediate, and the solicitors they hire to pursue a mere twenty quid, are expensive and thorough. I’ve spoken to them many times in the past trying to understand how they expect me to pay 600 quid a month in service and major works charges, while my mortgage was only 300.

I know friends who leasehold who see absolutely nothing wrong with this scenario. They consider paying these bills a civic duty, they consider themselves lucky to ‘own’ property in a city which has extraordinarily high rents, and in a country where 20% of the housing was built prior to 1919, Brits just get the fuck on with leaky pipes and freezing homes, used to the ‘quirks’ which Americans would find intolerable and worthy of deeming a residency a slum. Now I’ve lived in America, where even the freezing shitholes I’ve occupied have endless hot water and enough pressure to wash your hair seven times a day, and repairs, if they take more than a couple of weeks, end up in a lawsuit. One was an illegally converted garage with ivy growing through the closet owned by a Scientologist, the other an illegally converted studio some crazy dude in the LES made out of half of his rent-stabilized apartment. We do so many things better in Britain. We actually have a social services net which – used – to work, somewhat. ‘Somewhat’ in comparison to the US. But the Grenfell Tower disaster is just one more indication that the entire world, not just the US, is sinking to a despicable level. Our governments prioritize money. Capitalism runs everything, even our safety nets. Everyone runs articles about London, New York, Barcelona, Dublin, Paris having housing crises, and then in the next breath talks about the next big development in the city, how much money airbnb is making from multiple property owners buying off rent-fixed houses and jacking the rent for tourists.

I bet Kensington and Chelsea really patted themselves on the back for putting up that cladding to ‘improve’ appearances. They probably chose the cheapest contractor who still fleeced them, charged the leaseholders a huge amount, ignored everyone who complained, and turned that building into a matchstick.

When the tower burned, my father called me up to check that my tower block didn’t have the same cladding on it. It did not – mine was a red-brick 70’s affair – but I don’t feel confident that I could live there or any other social housing which wasn’t a standalone house after this tragedy. Those buildings were death traps, and the council knew it, and yet as councils do in the UK, they did absolutely nothing to remedy the situation because the answer: getting tenants out, rehousing them, razing the building to the ground and starting over, would be a statistical nightmare. Instead they continued to sell off social housing for a vast sum, and charge struggling leaseholders and council tax payers for the cladding which killed them.

Brits love to moan. We moan because Grenfell Tower happened. We moan because no one’s getting rehoused. We moan because everyone’s getting rehoused but no one’s taking it. We moan because of those ungrateful beggars waiting for the luxury flats to open up. We moan because seventeen languages aren’t on offer. We moan because our friends and neighbors died and we’re offered five grand in return.

Rarely do Brits do more than grumble. As America submits to the horrors of the Trump era with ineffective protests and grumbles, so does the Grenfell Tower demonstrate the futility of the British left, as all that’s left is to be merely outraged.

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Ruth Fowler was born in Wales and lives between Los Angeles and London. You can find out more about her at ruthfowler.net or Venmo her at @ruth-iorio

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