Written by Christian Noakes

In the West, the most inhumane housing conditions are often associated with the late 19th and early 20th century—a time in which people like Jacob Riis, whose photojournalism publication,  'How the Other Half Lives' depicted the living conditions in New York City’s slums, drew attention to unsafe living conditions to which the working class, and largely immigrant, population was subjected. However, the horrific scene of the Grenfell Tower fire in London on June 14th encapsulates the human cost of a privatized and deregulated housing market, and suggests that past reforms have served only to mitigate or alleviate the occasional symptom while leaving cause virtually unaltered. Anyone who thinks we have moved beyond the cruel capitalism of the industrial revolution to a more just or humanized, modern manifestation should consider the sobering images of a charred Grenfell Tower or the videos in which residents’ haunting screams can be heard. Confronted with such jarring images, one has to reconsider popular assumptions of progress and reform.

The Grenfell tower was a 24-story public housing block located in a working-class area of London that has, like so many other devalued communities, seen increased gentrification as of late. While an official number has yet to be issued, it is currently believed that 80 people lost their lives in the fire. Many of those reported missing have yet to be found or identified by their families. In addition, 151 homes were destroyed in the blaze. The event has triggered widespread outrage among residents, family, and large scores of the population more generally. Much of this outrage is informed by longstanding neglect of community and resident needs and a general sense of powerlessness of communities to control development.

The fact that something so essential as housing can be constructed not for the needs of people but for the maximization of profit becomes most apparent with such tragedies. However, the ideological underpinnings that allow such tragedies to occur are fundamental to the capitalist organization of housing. What happened to the residents of Grenfell Tower is an all too predictable (and predicted) outcome of a commodified housing system that substitutes livability with profitability; such tragedies are the result of cycles of devaluation, neglect, stigmatization, and gentrification that characterize neoliberal and neocolonial development.

According to reports, both public and private institutions responsible for building maintenance and housing standards were well aware of the potential catastrophe. Prior to the fire, residents experts  alike had voiced their concerns to the deaf ears of both the government and the managing company—a fact that suggests all was operating as intended. There was apparently only one fire escape route--a fatal flaw exasperated by the fact that the building had recently been wrapped in  thermal cladding material known to be highly combustible. In short, the building was not constructed to fit the needs of people but as the most profitable way to extract money from residents.

Moving beyond the underlying xenophobia of the “progressivism” of people like Jacob Riis, the main problem with many of the loudest calls for housing reform have been the dominant assumption that unsafe living conditions were a result of a culture of poverty and blight rather than a symptom of a system that sees livability as a luxury (as opposed to a human right) and takes little consideration of community needs. Because of this, many supposedly well-intentioned people become further entrenched in the idea that improvements take one of two paths: tear down the public housing in question and/or break up concentrated poverty via processes of gentrification. These two strategies are often deployed in tandem to take control of space deemed desirable (or profitable). In either case, blame is placed solely on the shoulders of the very people that face the harshest living conditions—poor communities of color. One should not overlook the fact that the people most at risk of being harmed in tragedies, such as what happened in London,  are the very people with a much more mundane target on their backs. Where neglect does not spell death and destruction for residents, the potential for displacement looms. The disempowerment of communities and the commodification of housing links these processes of neoliberal and neocolonial development.  

Capitalist relations need to be driven from the essential space of the home because, for the latter, nothing but the bottom line is sacred and people are reduced to passive objects utilized for profit. This requires that tenant control replace the dominant business model of housing and development; it is the everyday operations of capitalist systems and the ideological vision behind them that reduces tenants to means of producing profit. Without such systemic change, our Grenfell Towers can never become a thing of the past but must be an ever looming burden for working class communities and communities of color that are reduced to mere objects in the neoliberal and neocolonial processes of housing development. To adhere to the same ideological framework as the system which disastrous outcomes, like the Grenfell Tower fire, emerge is to reinforce circumstances in which working class communities and communities of color are most at risk of displacement, and even death. In contrast, a just housing system considers the needs of people by giving communities both the power and resources necessary to combat the colonization space.