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.
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.
— YouGov (@YouGov) June 16, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ultimately, 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.