Grenfell should launch a debate about the purpose of housing

Campaigners in London after the Grenfell fire. Image: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, hundreds of families have been made homeless. While many people were put up in hotels there were still a large number of families forced to sleep in local sports halls, with others having to stay with friends and relatives.

In the days after the fire, there were even reports that some of those made homeless bwere sleeping in their cars and in parks. As Emma Dent Coad, the newly-elected MP for Kensington, told Sky News:

People have been sleeping in cars and in parks because they don’t know where to go and they aren’t being looked after.

This has all led to criticism that ministers must do more to find homes for the families who lost everything in the devastating blaze.

One such suggestion of how to help them came from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the labour party, who proposed that vacant properties in the area should be seized and made available to those made homeless by the fire. In a television interview, Corbyn said:

There are a large number of deliberately kept vacant flats and properties all over London – it’s called land banking. People with a lot of money buy a house, buy a flat, keep it empty.

Housing needs

A YouGov poll suggested that a majority of Britons support Corbyn’s calls to seize or “requisition” empty properties to the benefit of Grenfell residents.

Most people questioned don’t see the use of land banking – or keeping homes empty to make money – as entirely legitimate. And there is also something particularly disturbing about having so many empty properties where people are in need of urgent homes.

The latest figures for Kensington and Chelsea reveal there are 1,399 vacant dwellings in the borough as of April 2017. So given that around 600 people lived in Grenfell Tower, there are more than enough empty homes in the area to house everyone made homeless by the fire.

Corbyn also seemed to suggest that if needed, residents of Grenfell should be able to occupy the empty homes, wherever they can find them, across Kensington and Chelsea.

An occupation

This style of occupation has been one of the main civil disobedience strategies of Spanish anti-eviction campaigners Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) – platform for the mortgage affected – when occupying empty homes belonging to banks in Spain.

To maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the public, two aspects have been essential for their occupations. First, it has to be a last resort for households involved – making it clear that squatting is not a choice but a necessity.

Second, it has to be within what liberal thinker John Rawls called “fidelity to law”. This means that although civil disobedience breaks a specific unjust law, it seeks to change that law rather than act entirely outside the law.

The ultimate goal of the PAH is to convert the empty property into social housing where the tenants pay a maximum of 30 per cent of their income in rent – thereby legalising the occupation.

Real estates

Such occupations would be risky for households in Britain though, with recent legislation making squatting punishable with six months in prison and £5,000 in fines.

London housing campaigners, Focus E15, did temporarily occupy parts of an empty council estate in 2014 when Newham Council decided not to force an eviction through the courts. But the private owners of empty housing in Kensington are less likely to be lenient. Some potential neighbours have already complained.

So although residents in Grenfell, or buildings that are being evacuated in the aftermath, would likely be perceived as legitimate if they were to occupy, they would be doing so at significant personal risk.

That said, this is a time when the public perception of what makes for legitimate housing politics is changing. Social movements, not least Grenfell Action Group, have been at the forefront of this change.

Housing wealth

What is clear is that the Grenfell fire and its aftermath has put a renewed focus on housing and how it relates to austerity, poverty, class, race and gender.

Just recently, the housing charity Shelter warned that a million households in private rented accommodation risk becoming homeless by 2020. This is due to a combination of the housing benefit freeze, stagnating wages and increasing rents.

In short, housing has become much more about “exchange value” and much less about “use value”. What this means in practical terms is that there are large swathes of properties in London where nobody lives – and these houses are no longer used as homes. It also means that to a homeowner a property is seen as a long-term investment, rather than a place to call their own. All of which benefits the banks – as previous social housing becoming mortgaged through buy-to-let.

The ConversationUltimately, housing politics has become more about generating wealth, and less about housing people decently and safely. And the need for housing for the Grenfell residents vs the vast amount of empty properties in the same London borough has brought this to light in the most devastating way possible.

Oscar Berglund is a research fellow in international political economy at the University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.