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'I can’t breathe' – how Grenfell highlights racial inequalities in housing provision

Eilidh Allan

Does blame for the 2017 tragedy really lie with the electrical fault, or is there a more racially charged explanation for this tragedy? asks Eilidh Allan, commended in RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition

Eilidh Allan commended piece brought together housing inequity and the Grenfell Tower fire.
Eilidh Allan commended piece brought together housing inequity and the Grenfell Tower fire. Credit: Natalie Oxford via Wikimedia Commons

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 had a catalytic impact, reminding the world of the perpetual injustice, inequality, and oppression that all non-white communities face. The Black Lives Matter movement re-entered global headlines and, in the UK, further unmasked the disparity in health, wealth, and equality that has occurred for generations. 

The assumption that the architectural industry avoids such atrocities is mistaken. Take Grenfell Tower. In June 2017, the 24-storey residential tower caught ablaze, the result of a fridge-freezer malfunction on the fourth-storey. Within 30 minutes, it had spread to subsequent storeys, resulting in 72 fatalities and a further 70 injuries. 

‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe no more.’ The final words of Jessica Urbano Ramirez, a 12-year-old Colombian victim of the fire, bear a chilling resemblance to the cries for help by Floyd. Of the Grenfell residents who died, 85 per cent were immigrants from places such as the Middle East and north Africa, east Africa, west Africa, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and the Philippines. 

It feels imperative to ask, does the blame really lie with the electrical fault, or is there a more racially charged explanation behind this tragedy?

Grenfell was designed as part of a social housing complex, providing people with good homes at reasonable rent. Although the exact backgrounds of the first tenants in 1974 is unknown, locals nicknamed it ‘Moroccan Tower’ as so many residents had family ties to Morocco. It is no surprise then, that in 2017, the residents were also mainly non-white. 

Only 2 per cent of housing associations today are managed by someone from a non-white background

The GOV.UK website reports that between 2016 and 2018 a huge percentage of some of the UK’s non-white population groups lived in rented social housing: 44 per cent of black African, 41 per cent of mixed white and black African, and 40 per cent of the black Caribbean. The first failure, and perhaps the most important (although not architectural), is the systemic racism that prevents individuals in these communities from gaining the power and wealth to ensure they don’t need social housing in the first place. If such equality existed, we would expect to see far lower percentages.

The English Housing Survey of 2016-2017 demonstrated that non-white households were also more likely to live in poor housing in deprived areas than white British households. This is true for Grenfell, which is located in the Royal London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The borough has the largest gap between rich and poor in the country and includes the top 10 per cent of the UK’s most deprived areas in 2015. 

The tower was unquestionably an example of poor housing, with many residents having reported the lack of fire doors and other safety standards prior to the blaze. When it was due refurbishment in 2014, residents approved a fire-resistant zinc cladding to the building’s exterior. In attempts to cut costs by £300,000, aluminium cladding with a combustible core was installed, a decision the residents had not approved. This underinvestment resulted in the loss of 57 non-white individuals. Would the contractors have reconsidered cutting costs if the residents were predominantly white British?

Forget for a moment the inadequacy of the physical building and consider the ability to actually rent housing. Years of institutional racism mean that, even today, non-white people can find themselves waiting longer for the offer of housing. When offered, the home is of poorer quality, and more often a flat rather than a house. Could this be why there was such a high percentage of non-white residents living in Grenfell Tower? 

A possible barrier in today’s age could be attributed to the lack of diversity of those who manage the rental of social housing. Only 2 per cent of housing associations today are managed by someone from a non-white background. Given that 13 per cent of the UK’s population is non-white, rising to 40 per cent in London where Grenfell was situated, could this under-representation contribute to the hardship minorities face in attaining better quality housing?

Estimates put the number of residents in Grenfell at between 400 and 600, despite the tower having only 200 bedrooms. GOV.UK figures show an estimated 3 per cent of UK households are overcrowded, but 98 per cent of those overcrowded households have non-white residents. Here again is that reoccurring theme of inequality. White British households are less likely to live in overcrowded conditions than all other ethnicities combined. Take only social housing into consideration and 6 per cent of white British people reported living in overcrowded houses, compared to 17 per cent of all other non-white groups, almost three times the percentage. This is a long-term problem but becomes more startling in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Public Health England research in 2020 showed that people of non-white groups had between a 10 per cent and 50 per cent higher risk of death from Covid-19 compared to white British people. Self-isolation has become a familiar term but it is only available to those with space. The white British population fails to understand that many cannot afford this privilege. Statistics clearly show that non-white communities are far more likely to live in overcrowded households, which inhibits self-isolation. Is it fair that these communities suffer – fatally – through no fault of their own, due to inequalities in the housing system?

These issues within social housing throughout the UK need addressing, not only to avoid tragedies such as Grenfell, but to address the greater suffering that the non-white population faces. Social housing should not perpetuate the ongoing racist rhetoric, but seek to put it right. Rebuilding the architectural industry should start today, with justice for residents of Grenfell Tower just the beginning of a much larger, but necessary battle.

This competition was run in collaboration with RIBA Future Architects Network

Read more of the best entries from the RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition