By Kate Lambert, Strategic program Manager, Ready to Rent
I’m going to start by saying that my home is London. I moved to Canada many years ago and became a Canadian citizen two years ago. I love this place. But when I say “home” I mean London. It’s where I grew passionate about safe, stable housing for everyone. I worked there to ensure that for 20 years which is why I feel so strongly about Grenfell.
I know that London will work to make sure that this will never happen again. But what can we learn and do following the fire and the devastating loss of life?
1. Multi-cultural communities work. When you marginalize? a group of people, it becomes easier for people in power (who aren’t renters normally) to ignore the voices of people who are. Encouraging vibrant, mixed communities of renters in our cities is important. Buying doesn’t need to be the only option for people. Mixed communities also work by sharing people’s strengths. Young Muslim men reportedly raised the alarm, and got a lot of people out of Grenfell. It was Ramadan and they were awake for iftar meals. Celebrating and encouraging mixed communities is something that Canada does well. It is important to make sure we ensure this is prioritized going forward.
2. Tenant engagement is important. There were multiple and repeated calls from tenants to improve conditions at Grenfell which were largely ignored. Tenants were worried about fire safety, escaping in the event of fire, power surges, lack of fire equipment, and many other issues. They were organized – had a residents’ action group, and a blog. As recently as last year, they posted that, “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord .” Engaged and organized tenants are a huge benefit to a landlord. Tenant engagement is hard to achieve, and here we had an engaged and communicative group of tenants who knew what was happening on the ground.
3. Evacuation planning is vital. The residents at Grenfell were told to stay in their suites in the event of fire. A lot of the people who survived ignored that advice, and got out on their own. There were also people who stayed in their unit, and were rescued by fire fighters. But it took so long to get to them, and there was no way of laddering higher floors – some tenants who took the advice and chose to stay died. There were reportedly no fire notices up, bad access to the building for emergency services, one staircase, bad fire separation and the cladding. In this case, staying put, which is often recommended in high-rise fires, contributed to deaths. Engaging the landlord, tenants, fire department, and the local government in effective evacuation planning might have saved lives.
4. Mandatory or recommended? Many of the issues that caused the fire had already been addressed because of other fires in the UK, and around the world. There were ‘recommendations’ made but a lot of these were not made mandatory. The argument was that people could choose to live in newer, better building. But Grenfell was one of very few affordable places to live in an expensive part of an expensive city. Less money may mean less space or less amenities but it shouldn’t mean less safety. Canada has had a better track record in the case of cladding. But things vary between provinces, cities and municipalities. Basic safety needs to be universal and mandatory.
5. Address low-quality housing with marginalized tenants. We know there are buildings in our cities and towns that are low quality, have massive maintenance issues, and are overcrowded with marginalized people who have few choices in housing. We know that but we don’t address it effectively. The Residential Tenancy Act covers maintenance, repairs and safety but when tenants complain about sub-standard and dangerous housing, very little happens; particularly when the tenants are less able to deal with the long process of justice. Legislation needs efficient and effective enforcement.
6. Funding and listening to fire departments. There has been a lot of discussion about the cuts to the fire services in London, and other emergency services. The fire demonstrated how well trained and effective these services are in an emergency. The Fire Brigade was on site in 6 minutes and 200 firefighters fought the blaze; but that was an emergency situation. The cuts affect training, inspections, education and other prevention measures. When you spend less on prevention, you need to spend more on emergency situations; and that is dangerous for fire fighters, tenants, and home owners. London Fire Brigade warned councils about the cladding earlier this year. Fire risk assessments were made self-certification in 2005, and can be carried out by anyone. We need to listen to the fire departments here and trust that they work for us and want what we want – less fires and less fatal fires.
We know that people can be very motivated after an event to make changes, for example, death of Alan Kurdî, Terry Fox, and the Fort McMurray fires. Grenfell should mark an end to marginalized tenants living in dangerous and shoddy accommodation. Decent, affordable, safe accommodations need to be available to everyone.
Fire Prevention Canada have factsheets and information on many fire prevention issues http://www.fiprecan.ca/
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada have some information and videos on escape planning and fire prevention. https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1317842518699/1317842725065
Take part in Emergency Preparedness week every May https://www.getprepared.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/ep-wk/index-en.aspx
Help welcome new Canadians into your multi-cultural community http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome/volunteer.asp
If you are concerned about lack of smoke detectors, adequate exits, fire safety, compliance with the law regarding fire safety or any other fire-related safety issues, contact your local fire department. You can also find this information online or at www.211.ca.
About Ready to Rent BC
Ready to Rent BC is a not for profit organization that provides education and support to tenants and landlords with the goal of healthy tenancies that result in housing stability, prevention of homelessness and strong communities. Its RentSmart program has helped thousands of renters navigate the rental market, find housing and have successful tenancies. To learn more, www.readytorentbc.org
Ready to Rent BC
Director of Marketing and Communications
Strategic Program Manager