The Big Lack of Debate in Housing
The ‘Big Housing Debate’ wasn’t really a debate, because no one really had the gall to disagree with the general sentiments that:
- We need more housing.
- There is very little help forthcoming from the government.
- The measures outlined in the autumn statement are unlikely to do much.
- Help-to-buy has principally enriched developers.
There was some sense especially with London providers that ‘we don’t want to scare developers with tedious regulation’ such as the demand for 50% social rents for any development (which was on the draft London plan a few weeks ago). The leader of Southwark Council was utterly unrepentant about controversial estates regeneration in his area, and insisted it was better for those residents to be socially cleansed, ahem, sorry 'moved' than stay on the estates. People tittered knowingly at his ‘jokes’ about the ‘infamy’ of his work.
There was some concern raised about the shortage of expertise in the sector and how this was anticipated to push up wages. There is something completely revolting about a room full of people nodding philosophically along with the idea that whatever is to come from the housing crisis, it will mean they are all unfortunately going to have to be paid more.
In Kate Davies’ panel, which was specifically about rebuilding trust in the sector post Grenfell. It started out with a housing lawyer speaking in earnest tones about how the Grenfell Action Blog gave a warning about fire safety at Grenfell, which he said was published just days before the fire. (I have never met a lawyer so embarrassingly underbriefed to be honest, but then maybe I just don’t hang around them enough). Kate nodded along sagely to his call to listen to tenants. Kate then spoke breathlessly about how distressing it was to watch the fire on the television, and how offensive it was to her that she wasn’t invited by Theresa May to discuss the issue given that she had lost three households/ 9 people in the fire. Then she talked about the lack of humanity towards residents, citing the moment that RBKC attempted to prevent residents participating in a Council meeting. FGS, this woman is either pathologically dissonant or a calculating psychopath. She revealed that we could all build trust by treating residents ‘as if’ they were like you or I, meaning the well-paid of the housing sector, when of course we are not really like them, being as none of us have yet had our hearts surgically removed while selling an Edwardian town house to a developer friend. She also said that what had been so important in the wake of the fire was the community response and how she had enabled staff to make decisions to help residents without even checking those decisions with line managers! What more proof do you need of her benevolence than the fact that some of her staff were willing to act like actual human beings without her direct permission?
After she spoke and I quietly reeled (I found the wide-eyed, Grenfell-happened-to-me just revolting and completely distressing) another woman on the panel spoke about how the sector had lost confidence in the regulation so she would like to see some new fire safety regulation.
Then it was opened to the floor. Some other dude asked a question that I barely registered (sorry) then I had the mic. I said that I was there as a NHH resident, and how a group of other NHH residents had all clubbed together to buy me the ticket because we were concerned about the lack of residents’ voices there, and how disappointed we were that organisers wouldn’t give us a ticket in order to ensure that representation. I said that if they wanted to build trust, their words had to mean something, and then talked about how Kate spoke so very convincingly about how awful RBKC were to residents, trying to bar them from meetings but that she’d tried to bar some of us from meetings, turning people away from the meeting at the Tabernacle. I talked about how she sounded so keen to suggest that you have to treat residents with humanity but how at that meeting she had spent most of her time looking at her phone until she was asked to stop it. I talked about how whatever she had said today, she wrote a blog in August after the fire talking about how if people keep complaining to the council or someone, they probably just liked to complain and blame someone else and how did that stack up against all this talk of listening to residents. I talked about how the Grenfell Action Group had in fact raised repeated concerns about fire safety since 2010 but were treated how Kate suggested in her blog. I said she’d heard all our complaints before but like GAG we have to repeat ourselves because she doesn’t listen. I said every word of criticism she had for RBKC could have been said about her and her interactions with residents. I said she was here talking about the importance of community while running down and selling off all the Victorian/ Edwardian townhousing in our area and displacing people for profit. I said she needs to walk the walk since her words sound so convincing but we don’t believe her.
Then the mic was taken off me and passed on. Kate had rolled her eyes through everything I had said and continued to do so, so I said to the Chair - look, she’s rolling her eyes at me? How does she get to be so rude and dismissive, isn’t this what you were all talking about? Kate said, well you are saying things that aren’t true. I said, look everything I have said is verifiable, we have recordings of you. I told everyone to look up our video, and said look, I have not come here ranting or being aggressive but this is the response we get. And you Kate you are having a hard day at work but this is our lives and homes.
Then I am really embarrassed to report I dissolved into tears. I had found the cynical Grenfell flagwaving horrible, sorry, and didn’t cope as well as I thought I would. Everyone was mortified by this, which I think is a good thing, and so was Kate. The mortification went on for an agonisingly silent minute where all you could here was me snottily crying, and everyone looked like I was weeping actual uranium and they would imminently melt.
I was then soothingly bundled out and into a room with Kate Davies. She was also mortified and kept saying, let me help you. I said I am not some incompetent, chaotic idiot who she had to help and that I wanted her respect not her help. She apologised for her ‘body language’ when I was speaking but said she felt attacked. So I said that I didn’t really think her feelings were relevant, and she said she thought her feelings and mine were both valid, and I said I didn’t think they were what mattered, what mattered is that we deal with the actual issue of tenant relationships. She continued to say she thought it was relevant that she had felt upset, so I said, you know Kate, when white people get involved in a discussion about racisim and then centralise the whole discussion on how bad they feel about being called racist, and how really if the worst thing that can happen to you in a discussion about race is that someone might call you racist then this is a marker of your absolute privilege? You are making this all about your feelings Kate and this is about people in precarious housing at your absolute mercy. She got a bit irritated by this and rolled her eyes and said that my housing wasn’t precarious. And I said, yes it was, when their contractor fucked up a gas safety appointment I got a letter saying they were going to have to evict me. And she blethered a bit about safety and had the gall to say we all had to be careful about safety because Grenfell. And I said that I am not such an idiot I didn’t want to be safe, I just thought her organisation shouldn’t immediately assume that residents are chaotic fuckwits who try and keep out gas safety inspectors because they were stupid and ignorant, and might instead wonder why their lying bloody contractors were saying it was my fault I missed the inspection and do something like, I don’t know, giving me a ring before threatening to put me and my children on the street. So she then said right, I am going to look at this for you! So I said, actually this meeting isn’t about me and my gas saftey appointments, it’s about the merger.
So then we talked about the merger. I asked her if she understood the opposition and she didn’t really, and she also said most people were happy. I took her to task on the idea of calling it a consultation when none of us have any real say on what will happen. She said on the contrary, they had really listened and the new organisation will: (1) keep tenants on the same contracts before and after the merger. I think we should follow this up to get firm promises on conversions to affordable rents etc. (2) cease the sale of all central London properties. We absolutely need this in writing from her. (3) be a ‘community based’ organisation. I asked her what this meant, she said it meant they would keep close to the community. How? by being ‘community based’. But what does that mean Kate? Does it mean for example your staff will be from the community? YES THAT is what it means, she said, with some relief that I had given her some spurious basis for what is essentially the tag line of the new relationship. I am afraid I was all with the eye rolls at this stage.
I then tried to talk to her about whatever she is saying about the merger, the thing that means that we will never get on board with it is our fundamental lack of agency here. I asked her about the timing of the announcement, did she realise how insensitive it was. Short answer: no, and she still doesn’t. I tried to explain that we were a traumatised community when they made their announcement, and how the heart of trauma is helplessness; and that at the centre of our grief about Grenfell is the basic fact of watching it happen, without being able to do a thing about it. And how we’d all known about GAG attempts to get heard, and how we saw in that inability to be heard our own lack of control, or agency, or dignity in our own housing situations and what she and her organisation threw into that was a glaring example of that lack of control and therefore, the merger going ahead for good or otherwise will be retraumatising to us because of the process. She said she felt there was nothing she could really do about this, and I suggested why not take back to her organisation an argument for a pause in the process, a six month delay while you talk further with residents, and if the merger was a good idea, she would win the argument. She was completely unwilling to consider this in any way. Which says everything you need to know. Completely immovably fixated on this for reasons she will not be honest about.
She did say she wants to meet with Gemini and ‘whoever’ and we don’t need to pay £300 a ticket to go and see her. I think we follow this up again with requests to meet with the board?
Kate then left and I returned to the last session. Many people came up to me and thanked me for my comments. I spoke in the last session that as a social housing tenant by the end of my life I will have paid enough towards my housing to cover the build costs, I cover the service charge for my housing anyway, and what subsidy is everyone talking about given than Councils can build on their own land and enhance density on their own sites so aren't being stung for outrageous land values. They just flat denied that you could possibly on the rates of social housing afford to build a house. I think we should develop our numbers on this.
After Grenfell, an entire appartment block was bought by the City of London 'at cost price' of £10m for 68 units. This works out at about £150k per appartment. At the rate I pay (650 a month) I will have paid the build cost of an appartment at these rates in 18 years and 9 months ish. This isn't even the length of a standard mortgage. Even at 200 a month you will have paid for it in your lifetime in social housing. So we need to keep challenging the idea that we are being subsidised in the social housing sector. In point of fact, we are paying over and over again for our own housing with no rights to the capital that we contribute over the years as a mortgage holder has, and for housing that we have little choice or control over. Our lack of agency about our housing is predicated on the basis of a subsidy we do not receive. It's an absolute scam.
By Eve Wedderburn