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Grenfell Tower, explained: how a deadly fire in London became a political crisis

Grenfell Tower residents knew they were in danger. Nobody paid attention. Then their building caught on fire.

The building burns with flames coming out of windows in the background and a man wears a mask in the foreground.
The Grenfell Tower burning on June 14.
Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Only seven months before a catastrophic fire engulfed an apartment building in West London, leaving at least 79 people missing and presumed dead and hundreds more homeless, residents in the public housing project said their warnings about safety and fire hazards would only be paid attention to if a huge disaster happened, resulting in a “serious loss of life.”

Their dire prediction came true.

On June 14, a fire broke out just after midnight in Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing project. As the fire rapidly spread through the building, residents were so desperate to get out that some jumped out of windows, while others screamed for help. It was Britain’s deadliest fire in decades.

As details about the residents’ warnings to the neighborhood association and building managers emerge, the biggest question is: Why were their complaints ignored? This tragedy could have been avoided because everyone, even government ministers, knew the residents were at risk.

Investigators are still looking into the causes of the catastrophic fire, but Grenfell Tower residents and Londoners are furious, demanding answers and change.

Grenfell Tower stands in the city and is scorched.
The remains of Grenfell Tower days after a fire incinerated the building.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Grenfell Tower was built for low-income residents, but the neighborhood is gentrifying

The 120-unit Grenfell Tower was home to primarily low-income residents, many of whom immigrated to the UK from Sudan, Eritrea, and Syria. But the building was located in a famously wealthy neighborhood: Kensington, where the average rent was just under $4,000 per month last year.

Since its construction in the 1970s, Grenfell Tower has been considered social housing, which means that rent is maintained at a low price by law. It’s owned by a local council that’s legally obligated to provide housing for people in its neighborhood who are homeless or in need. Units are supposed to be kept at affordable prices for people with low incomes.

When the building was constructed, it was completely dedicated to affordable social housing, said David Ireland, the director of the Building and Social Housing Foundation based in the UK. Since then, however, some units have been bought by residents who often rent them out at a drastically higher market price. Approximately 20 percent of the units in Grenfell Tower were rented at more expensive rates.

As more units are rented at higher rates, the organizations managing social housing buildings are incentivized to attract wealthier tenants. They primarily do this by renovating the existing property — adding private gyms, updating the lobbies, and changing the building’s exterior.

It’s gentrification at its most basic: modernizing an area to attract wealthier residents while disregarding the poorer residents who lived there in the first place.

And that’s exactly what happened to Grenfell Tower.

It was supposed to be a beautification project, except for the flammable cladding

Grenfell Tower’s not-for-profit manager, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, decided in 2014 to conduct a major renovation of the building, costing approximately $12 million. The organization funded the renovation, and it was completed in partnership with Rydon Construction in May 2016.

According to a press release that year, the refurbishment included new windows, an improved communal heating system, and an “impressive new foyer.” It also added nine new units. But the most concerning “improvement” was the installment of exterior cladding.

Cladding is a trendy material that is applied to the outside of a building to improve its appearance and energy efficiency. There are two kinds of cladding: one that is more flammable, and one that is not. Although investigators have not confirmed what kind of cladding was used on Grenfell Tower, the Guardian reports that the cheaper, more flammable kind was used.

Regardless of the type, critics of the material have warned against its use for years. If it catches on fire, it can spread flames throughout the building in minutes, which is what happened in Grenfell Tower.

“It is like you have got a high-rise building and you are encasing it in kerosene,” said Edwin Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, in an interview with the New York Times.

So in essence, the building managers and builders added a flammable outer shell to Grenfell Tower to make it look more attractive to wealthier clients in a gentrifying neighborhood, without concern for the poorer residents already living there.

A woman wearing a headscarf looks at missing person photos posted on a brick wall
A community member looks at missing person posters near Grenfell Tower.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

When the renovations were completed in May 2016, a local official commented on how wonderful the cladding looked: “It is remarkable to see first hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower,” said Councillor Nicholas Paget-Brown in a press release.

The connection between the cladding and the neighborhood’s gentrification was not missed by the Grenfell Action Group, a group of Grenfell Tower residents that records community demands and complaints, which wrote about it in a blog post published days after the fire:

The cladding on Grenfell Tower was intended to pimp it up so that it wouldn’t spoil the image of creeping gentrification that the Council are intent on creating, here and throughout the rest of North Kensington.

But why is cladding permitted in the first place if it’s so dangerous? Even though the material has been banned on tall buildings in the United States and many other countries, the British government still allows the use of cladding on tall buildings, like Grenfell Tower.

Several British ministers suggested over the weekend that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was prohibited, but they were wrong, according to the New York Times. The UK’s national building regulations only warn that “the use of combustible materials in the cladding system and extensive cavities may present a [fire] risk in tall buildings.” But it does not specifically ban the material.

On top of that, during the refurbishment process, Grenfell Tower was full of fire hazards — according to residents, there was no sprinkler system, only one usable staircase, and one exit that sometimes was sometimes blocked.

The organization managing Grenfell Tower had violated fire regulations before

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization has a history of ignoring fire regulations. In October 2015, one of the properties it manages experienced a fire due to arson. No one died in the incident, but several people suffered smoke inhalation.

After the fire, the London Fire Brigade issued an “enforcement notice” asking the management organization to improve safety in the escape staircases and provide self-closing devices to all the units’ front doors, according to the Guardian.

Grenfell Tower’s residents claim that the management organization never provided detailed information about what they should do in case of a fire. There were fire safety signs posted throughout the building, but they advised residents to stay in their unit with the windows and doors closed if a fire was elsewhere in the building.

The fire safety sign encourages residents to stay in their unit if the fire is elsewhere in the building
A fire safety sign posted in Grenfell Tower before the fire.
Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Even more shocking is the fact that Grenfell Tower residents had been filing complaints against the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization for years before the renovation. Their concerns touched on a wide range of safety considerations, including the location of heaters in the building, emergency lighting, and emergency exit access.

In addition to sharing concerns on a regularly updated blog, Grenfell Tower residents reached out to local officials. In fact, four government ministers knew that Grenfell Tower residents were at risk.

In leaked letters shared with the BBC, the parliamentary group on fire safety told government ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government that safety regulations needed to be strengthened.

One letter sent in 2014 emphasized how tragedy could strike anywhere in the city:

As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?

And all these letters were sent before Grenfell Tower was renovated and more safety hazards were added.

Ronnie King, the secretary for the group that was sending the letters, said he provided many recommendations on how to enhance safety but ministers never reached a consensus, according to the Guardian.

“They seem to need a disaster to change regulations, rather than evidence and experience,” said King. “They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”

Even Prime Minister Theresa May’s new chief of staff might share part of the blame for the tragedy. Gavin Barwell, the former housing minister, delayed a review of fire safety in apartment buildings even after the review was called for when six people died in a blaze in South London in 2009, according to the Independent.

Much of the blame for the tragedy has fallen on both the management organization and the national government. If investigators confirm that the cladding was why the fire spread so rapidly and the building completely incinerated, then more of the responsibility could fall on the national government for failing to regulate and ban the material.