From Grenfell Tower to Philadelphia and New York to … the fire next time

In 2017, 72 people died and 70 others were injured in the Grenfell Tower fire.  Afterward the British government extended benefits to the injured and displaced, terminated the management company’s contract, and began addressing similar flammable cladding hazards at other buildings. The British government’s response to Grenfell may not have been enough, but it was at least something.  And it should have been a wakeup call to the United States, which has neglected its crumbling public housing infrastructure for decades. Estimates of the cost to fix up our existing public housing stock now exceed $70 billion after prolonged disinvestment.  Much of the needed funds would have been included in the Build Back Better Act that Senator Manchin torpedoed just before the holidays. Now we have seen two fires in HUD-subsidized properties within a week.  12 perished in the Philadelphia fire and 19 died in the fire in the Bronx, in New York City.

Mass-casualty are extreme examples but substandard housing kills constantly.  Often it’s the child electrocuted by bare wires or the elderly person whose lungs can’t handle the mold or the fall from the porch that finally gives way. This is to say nothing of the untold numbers of non-fatal, yet serious injuries that unsafe housing causes.

The dangerous condition of much U.S. housing stock in the 1920s and 1930s was a major catalyst for the original development of public housing.  Now we are seeing it again – dangerous housing for lower-income households, whether publicly-owned or private.

If some good came come out of these fires, perhaps we will finally see the much-needed investments in public housing capital improvements that we have needed since the 1980s.  And perhaps building inspectors will start taking their duties more seriously. But if we do nothing, then the next fire is on you, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.


(By Eric Dunn) (Eric Dunn is Litigation Director at National Housing Law Project. He writes here in his own capacity)

(Infographic Credit: National Low Income Housing Coalition)