Grenfell Tower: why survivors of the fire might resist accepting temporary homes

by Dave Hill

Information about the people who lived in Grenfell Tower compiled by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) might help us understand a little more about why the process of re-housing the survivors is proving to be more slow and difficult than had been hoped.

Communities secretary Sajid Javed told the House of Commons yesterday that 169 out of an identified 220 survivor households from the tower’s 129 flats have received offers of temporary accommodation, of which only 30 have been accepted so far. Just nine have moved in to the dwellings provided while others continue to stay in hotels or with family members or friends.

Reaction to this has ranged from fierce criticism of the authorities to extraordinary social media nastiness directed at Grenfell families themselves, and with a lot of honest puzzlement in between. After all, some of the offers of temporary homes appear to be quite good: in some cases local, rent-free for up to 12 months and with the possibility of becoming permanent, so it is said.

With the government still insisting that all fire survivors will be permanently rehoused – albeit not as quickly as originally promised – it might seem strange that any family would rather remain in even quite a nice budget hotel for an indeterminate period rather than put their bags down somewhere more suitable for a year while a secure, permanent residence is sorted out.

The housing histories of many of the Grenfell tenants might explain some of that reluctance to accept temporary places among those who have lost everything except their lives. The TMO data, compiled for someone concerned with the re-housing process, show that 41 of the 115 tenant households (the other 14 are leaseholds) that had lived in Grenfell Tower had been allocated flats there by the borough’s homeless person unit.

It isn’t hard to imagine that survivors who have lived in temporary accommodation before might be that bit less eager to to do so again, especially if there’s a reasonable chance of not having to if they hold on where they are for long enough. That number could, perhaps, be higher: in the case of 34 of the tenancies, the reason for their beginning is described as “unknown”, the second most frequent categorisation, followed by “waiting list” (20) and “transfer” (10).

Another striking thing the TMO’s data reveal is the length of time many Grenfell residents had lived in the tower. The figures, which I have in my possession, are presented with the important and reasonable caveat that they might not have been completely accurate at the time of the fire due to what an accompanying note calls “the fluid nature of households”, with such as guests, lodgers and family members being born or passing on or moving in and out of residence unrecorded.

Even so, it is notable that 48 of the contracts (47 tenancies and one lease) relating to the tower’s 129 units, almost all of which were one or two-bedroom units, were 20 or more years old and another 30 (23 tenancies and seven leases) were between 10 and 20 years old. Only 16 contracts (15 tenancies and one lease) had been in place for less than a year, and these included those relating to the nine new flats, some of them three-bedroom, created by the refurbishment that resulted in the application of the cladding through which the fire spread so fast.

All of this indicates that many Grenfell residents had been so for a long time, including a lot of those who’d previously been homeless: 23 of the 41 tenancies allocated to homeless households were between 10 and more than 20 years old. The ages of those named as tenants are frequently in their 50s, 60s and 70s and there is one 82 year-old. This age profile suggests many enduring ties to the local area and invites us to appreciate more deeply that re-location to a different one, even if not very distant or for a very long period, might be daunting at the best of times, let alone at the very worst imaginable, especially for older people.

Place these considerations in the context of what seems to have been a poor relationship between residents and the TMO, a climate of mistrust of governance authorities in general and the pervasiveness of the “social cleansing” narrative created by militant housing activists, and hesitancy among survivors about accepting temporary homes looks more and more explicable.

However, it doesn’t follow from the above that all Grenfell Tower residents were content with their accommodation there. The information from the TMO reveals that no less than 83 of the 115 Grenfell tenant households were seeking to be transferred from their flats. Others, more knowledgeable than I, regard that number as unusually high. No reasons for these transfer requests are given, though it seems possible they include overcrowding, problems with neighbours, problems with the flats themselves, dislike of being in high rise accommodation with children or just wanting to move somewhere else – commonplace reasons why Londoners anywhere seek housing transfers. It seems reasonable to speculate that disruption related to the tower’s refurbishment, which many tenants thought poorly managed, might have contributed to a wish to leave.

A breakdown of the amount of social housing within Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and the heavy demand for that stock – something that isn’t unique to the royal borough, it should be said – is also supplied. As of 1 April this year, there were 6,613 “general needs” units of various sizes in RBKC, plus 172 reserved for older people and 62 in hostels for the homeless. The borough had accepted 1,832 households as statutorily homeless, meaning it has taken on a duty to house them, and a further 241 applications were under investigation or had not been accepted. In all, 2,887 households already in social housing were seeking transfers elsewhere, including the 83 from Grenfell.

Another part of the TMO information that tells a strand of the Grenfell story before the fire is the list of names on tenancies and leases: British names, African names, Arabic names and more. It is a very London list and reading it is the more affecting for the bleak knowledge that some of those people are no longer alive.

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