Greater Than Grenfell

The Grenfell Fire, more than being a senseless tragedy, reveals disturbing socioeconomic imbalances and is a failure on the government’s part.

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By Kristin Lin

“The majority of the building’s residents were low-income—according to Vox, many of them were immigrants and refugees from Syria, Sudan, and Eritrea.”

Three years ago, brothers Mohammed Alhajali and Omar Alhajali fled Syria. Though the journey was dangerous, they escaped to the U.K., became university students, and successfully began new lives. But everything changed on the night of June 14, when a refrigerator caught fire inside Behailu Kebede’s fourth-floor apartment at the Grenfell Tower.

The fire spread more rapidly than anyone had anticipated, leaping up the building’s exterior and engulfing it in a matter of minutes. The Alhajalis tried to escape from the 14th floor together, but were separated in the tower’s single stairwell. While Omar eventually found his way out, Mohammed did not.

Mohammed Alhajali became the first of at least 80 people pronounced dead in the Grenfell Tower fire. Though the fire took place months ago, the official death toll is expected to be announced in 2018, and will likely have three figures.

The tragedy of this fire, however, doesn’t solely lie in the death count, or in how long the building burned (about 60 hours), but in the way that this fire was completely preventable. Simply put, Grenfell Tower was a death trap where simple changes could have saved numerous lives.

The building lacked fire escapes, alarms, and sprinklers. According to survivor accounts, its single staircase turned out to be catastrophically crowded during the fire. In addition, the building’s recently-installed insulation and cladding contained flammable materials—elements that played a key role in spreading the fire to the building’s other floors.

Some of the reasons why such obvious safety hazards were overlooked seem to revolve around who the residents of Grenfell Tower—and their neighbors—were. Grenfell Tower is located in Kensington, an extremely wealthy neighborhood with one of Britain’s largest wealth gaps. In fact, the majority of the building’s residents were low-income—according to Vox, many of them were immigrants and refugees from Syria (like the Alhajalis), Sudan, and Eritrea. Grenfell Tower is considered social housing, meaning that the rent is legally supposed to be kept at an affordable price for low-income residents.

Over time, however, some of the units in Grenfell Tower were rented at more expensive rates as a money-hungry management willingly turned a blind eye in the hopes of profiting. For the same reason, the surrounding area became increasingly gentrified as local councils—namely, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization—attempted to attract wealthier folk and cover up Kensington’s poorer areas.

Grenfell Tower underwent various renovations as part of the management’s efforts to disguise the area’s poverty and appeal to rich prospective tenants. One of these renovations was a seemingly innocuous yet highly flammable version of exterior cladding (a material that covered Grenfell Tower in a shell in order to beautify it), and the rest is history.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire incident is the way the local management willingly overlooked the basic safety needs of the poorer residents in the area in an effort to attract wealthier ones, even though Grenfell Tower’s tenants repeatedly filed complaints and attempted to draw the issue to the management’s attention.

Accompanying this neglect is the implication that the lives of minorities and the poor hold less value relative to the lives of the privileged. To hold social housing to a lower standard counters the mission of social housing entirely, which is to provide a safe and secure home for the disadvantaged and those in dire financial circumstances.

There are steps that must be taken to prevent a needless disaster of this nature from occurring again. The most immediately obvious one is that Britain should ban flammable cladding on tall buildings, like the United States and several other countries have already. Cladding wasn’t already banned chiefly because business-friendly politicians in Britain have long campaigned to free businesses from the weight of safety regulations.

The British government must now prioritize the basic safety needs of its citizens over big business, beginning by inspecting other buildings for the kind of cladding that spurred this fire’s growth and removing it when found.

More importantly, in addition to providing stronger government oversight of businesses and housing management, the British government should fully dedicate itself to ensuring that all former residents of Grenfell Tower are able to come forward for treatment and help without repercussions. Though Prime Minister Theresa May initially promised that anyone affected by the tragedy would receive government support (i.e. accommodation and healthcare) with no regard to their immigration status, she later went back on her word and stated that anyone coming forward for help would be subject to normal immigration rules.

Doing background checks puts undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation and will likely discourage them from coming forward to receive the attention they need. This is not the time to be performing immigration checks; the least May can do is guarantee that everyone, regardless of immigration status, receives the necessary care.

It is beyond tragic that a catastrophe of this nature is needed to reveal the disastrous consequences that gentrification can have. The Grenfell Action Group warned that only a catastrophic fire would convince the management to finally take fire safety regulations seriously last November, yet no one listened until the building was engulfed in flames.

Grenfell’s tragedy holds a striking similarity to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Both are chilling evidence of corporations that prioritize profit over citizens, workers, and residents, and of a government that blatantly neglects those at the bottom of society. Investigations into the causes of the Grenfell Fire, as well as whether the local management can be charged with corporate manslaughter, are still underway. We can only hope that they will bring about rightful and long-awaited change.