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16 June 2017updated 04 Oct 2023 9:55am

Grenfell Tower residents are angry and alone in a neighbourhood of absent millionaires

Low-income families have been pushed out of their local communities. Can those made homeless by the fire hope for anything better? 

By Bilal mahmood

While investigations into what happened at Grenfell Tower get under way, and the grieving of an entire city takes place, there will be an immediate question as to what happens to the families.

Because of the lack of adequate affordable homes in London, many of these residents from diverse communities and low-income backgrounds fear they may be displaced outside London. That’s bad for them, but also shameful for a city that prides itself on being vibrant and diverse.

Kensington is an acute example of the massive inequality that still exists in London. Many homes sell for over £1m.

It’s home to international chief executives, lawyers and bankers, many of whom fell in love with the area after watching Notting Hill.

At the same time, it also has one of the highest rates of residential overcrowding, and some of the greatest wage inequality. The top 25 per cent of earners make at least three times as much as the poorest quarter.

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For many (if not all) residents who have lost their homes in Grenfell Tower, alternative local accommodation will be a struggle.

Already, as documented in the film I, Daniel Blake, low-income families are being pushed out of London. Families who become homeless (and the biggest cause of homelessness is simply the end of a private rental contract) are being shipped out by councils to Essex, Kent and beyond.

For these families, finding an affordable home also means finding new jobs, schools and rebuilding local connections. Unable to afford the rocketing prices of new homes (in part a result of gentrification across London) they have become victims of the city’s own success.

Kensington also has the highest number of empty properties, left vacant by overseas investors or used only as holiday homes. The fact those with the least may have to leave their home area, while so many luxurious properties sit idly empty, is a bitter injustice.

For low-income families, a stable, diverse but familiar community is vital. In turn, this fosters a sense of belonging, empowerment and mobility.

Displacement will be even harder when one appreciates that many will be working in low-paid jobs gained from connections within their own community.

And for children, a stable education is the lifeline to an upwardly mobile future. Having to uproot from friends and teachers can be particularly damaging for their future prospects. For many families from ethnic minority backgrounds, living close to relatives gives them a support network in difficult times. Moving away from their mosque, church or family members will be an isolating experience and can lead to more disconnected communities.

This displacement not only harms the future of these families, it damages London. Public sector workers and small local businesses are the backbone of residential London – they prop up a city that the rest of the world yearns to travel to and work in.

Diverse communities make London open, welcoming and culturally dynamic. Areas like Kensington are filled with food, music and cultures ranging from the Philippines to Morocco. Fracturing these communities will leave a large hole in the heart of the area that will take a long time to fill, particularly when so many will feel the wider community was not working for them when it counted.

Rocketing house prices and growing inequality have led to gentrification across the capital. While this brings the benefits of local investment, it risks creating social ghettos and homogenous communities. That’s not just bad for the economy, it’s bad for society.

The answer is better, joined-up public services and more attempts to make gentrification work for the whole community. It also means genuinely affordable housing, with stronger legislation around private renting to make sure tenants get a fair deal and security for their families. Should the worst happen, vulnerable families would be able to settle again locally and continue to contribute to their community.

I spoke to my mum about the fire last night. We grew up in a block of flats in east London not dissimilar to Grenfell Tower.

For an immigrant family, our local area was where we began to put down roots, where we became part of society and contributed to our country. It was also a place where we bound together with other ethnic minority communities (not just our own), which gave me a stable sense of identity, tolerance and belonging.

This supported us when we felt isolated, or struggled financially. When we look back on building our life around a familiar community, we realise how lonely the residents of Grenfell Tower must feel right now. My mother and I understood how scared and angry many people were when London Mayor Sadiq Khan visited, and I’m sure he understood, too.

They haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their communities and certain futures. Because of London’s growing economic and social divide, the city that they call home, where they have contributed so much, may not be able to help them – forcing them to abandon it. That’s bad for them, and worse for those they will leave behind.

Bilal Mahmood is a Labour activist and stood as a candidate in the 2017 election

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