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)

When it comes to affordable housing, Alexandria continues its race to the bottom

Since 2000, the very small city of Alexandria, Virginia, outside of Washington, DC, has “lost” 12,000 affordable apartments, most of whose residents were African American, Latino, and then African immigrants. In the past, the alibi was “development.” In the most recent episode, that of Ramsey Homes, it’s “heritage”. Either way, the result is the same.

Ramsey Homes is 74 years old and in terrible shape. It was originally built for African American defense workers, and so was always “very Spartan”. It has no air conditioning, inadequate heating and electricity, deteriorating plumbing, and the list goes on.

The residents want and deserve better. Many want to tear down the buildings and start anew, with promises that they will be among the new. They know the history of `urban renewal’ in Alexandria, and they know it hasn’t included them. But they believed that if they could make their case, this time the City would act differently.

It didn’t. Along with much bungling among city agencies responsible for housing, the City Council couldn’t move forward because some of its members listened to a call for `historic preservation.’

Charkenia Walker, a resident of Ramsey Homes, has tried to get the City Council and other city agencies to understand the situation: “It’s hard to believe the historic significance and relevance outweighs the standard of living in 2015. I just want neighbors to understand the construction of new units will benefit us as a whole. There are working-class citizens who cannot afford to live in the neighborhood in which they have grown, me included … The units are old. Think of an aging person. When you get old, you don’t walk as good as you used to, you don’t climb stairs as good as you used to, your mechanisms begin to change. The same thing is happening inside of these units, they are falling apart.”

Ramsey Homes is the architecture of affordable housing in Alexandria: disregarded by public officials and public policy for decades, crumbling, and toxic. The residents have struggled to secure decent housing, here and now, here where they live and have roots and commitments, and now. The residence may be Spartan, but the neighborhood is home.

Once again, the City has failed them, and this failure is nothing new. It’s systemic, longstanding and part of the plan. It’s time, it’s way past time, to reverse the past two decades of loss and violence.


(Photo Credit: Alexandria Times)