The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower block fire in London, which claimed an estimated 80 lives, sent shockwaves that resonated far beyond the British capital. High-rise apartment blocks packed with people feature in many city skylines. Growing populations, a shift towards urbanisation, and limited land mean that in building terms often the only way is up. But standards vary wildly and all too often we see it is the poorest and most marginalised that end up in substandard accommodations, sometimes with terrible consequences.
Exactly a month after Grenfell, three people were killed in another tower block fire in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here in Johannesburg we witnessed our own fatal tower block disaster. Seven people perished following a fire that broke out at Cape York Building in early July. Many others were injured. According to reports, one person died after jumping out of the building trying to escape the fire.
Johannesburg’s mayor, Herman Mashaba, has offered his condolences as if this was some kind of unforeseeable accident. It wasn’t. Like the case of Grenfell Towers, the risks were known. People are dead because they were poor and now with the building set to be sealed, others currently living in Cape York will be forced to move and so become further casualties of the fire. While the city has announced that it will offer support to the displaced, there is a shortage of alternative accommodation, making it unclear where people will be relocated.
Cape York didn’t receive the same media attention as Grenfell Towers, most likely because the death count was not as high and the residents had been squatters, many having occupied the downtown building since the late 1990s. But it shouldn’t take anyone’s needless death to force us to focus on the social issues underlying both tragedies. Across the world’s cities, many residents live in substandard conditions, mostly out of desperation. For too long local governments across many cities have allowed only market forces to dictate the kind of development that is taking place. All too often that is at the expense of low-income residents who are either pushed out of the city or forced to live in unsafe conditions. City authorities are failing to prioritise safe, affordable accommodation.
Research into the supply of and demand for low-income accommodation in Johannesburg’s inner city found that both availability and affordability were major problems for almost half of these residents, who earn less than $245 per month. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute found a household would have to earn about $440 per month to afford the cheapest formal rental available from the private sector.
It’s been about ten years since, for the first time, the majority of the world’s population was to be found living in cities. This urban shift is going to continue, with a projection that up to 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030. This means the demand for affordable housing will grow. Dumping the poorest members of society into substandard accommodation is not a solution.
China learned this the hard way. After encouraging cities to sell land to private property developers and abandoning social housing (housing provided by government, and in some countries NGOs, for low-income residents), political leaders were forced into an uncharacteristic backtrack when it became clear that a growing number of residents in its major cities were ending up in squalid buildings.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Burning towers and the future of the world’s urban poor’.