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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”