Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Grenfell Tower: Building to Reap the Whirlwind

image by Chris Barker

With the global economy hurtling toward a greater and more insurmountable chasm between the rich and poor, symptoms of these societal structural inequalities will continue to occur. The deadly and terrible fire in Grenfell Tower is just one more in a chain of tragic disasters that continue to impact the most vulnerable people in disproportionate measure.

Public and affordable housing remains a hotbed of political and social strife, in no small part due to the continual implementation of disastrous policies, lack of oversight and regulation, and straight-out malevolence from the governments and landlords of these properties toward those people these projects are meant to serve. The US has more than a few particularly infamous housing projects, many of which have been vacated or demolished as unsalvageable failures.

By now there has been a great deal of press about the flammable cladding, the single stairwell for a 24 story building (completely legal per British building code and ASTONISHING to this US architect), the misinformation given to residents, the previously-aired fears of a disastrous fire, and the overall heartless deregulation to give financial advantage to landlords and disregard the health, safety, and welfare of tenants.

(And you thought this speech by Rik Mayall on "The New Statesman" was satire.)

Perhaps what is saddest and most infuriating is that this largely-preventable tragedy was not the first of its kind, and won't be the last. Remember the Ghost Ship fire - less than a year ago? This fire, in a building that was not intended to house residents but was home to dozens, killed 36 people in Oakland, California.  And like in Oakland, the survivors in London are without much hope of finding a new place to live within the city. London is suffering from its success - in a booming economy and with increased population growth, affordable housing has been sluggish to keep up, resulting in a severe gap between the median home price and median salary. These are not "market forces" at work - this is the deliberate policy of the government choosing not to invest in this desperately-needed sector. This is in stark relief to the "Billionaire's Row", a street of empty and derelict mansions worth millions of pounds. 

While there has been an outpouring of funds and donations from around the world to help alleviate this situation, this is merely a bandaid on the open wound of unjust housing. What would it mean to the UK (and the US, and the rest of the world) if the government were to adopt a Right to Housing as part of a bill of rights for all people in these nations? Not just nationalists, not just citizens, not just legal aliens, but every person would have the right to access adequate housing. How would this be defined? How would it be supplied? How is it to be believed that some of the wealthiest nations on the face of the earth are unable to afford the basic sheltering of their people?

Perhaps I am being hypocritical. I'm an architect that designs in the luxury residential market - highly specialized and profitable, and for the most part ignores the need for affordable housing by building single family residences on oversized lots in the wealthy suburbs and rural landscapes. Then again, the city of Chicago where I practice has an Affordable Requirements Ordinance which demands that residential developers building in the city provide either affordable units within the project itself, or build affordable housing elsewhere in the city. This does not apply to every project, but it does apply to a substantial number of them, one of mine included. While this does not address a right to housing, it does help to ensure that affordable housing exists in the marketplace and is available for those who need it. It's a small step in the right direction.

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