Grenfell Tower: Hundreds of council-owned homes empty as scores of families remain stuck in hotels

UK

More than 200 homes bought by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) to rehouse Grenfell survivors are empty a year on as scores of households remain in hotels because the properties are deemed unsuitable.

Charities and lawyers have condemned the “very poor” quality of housing offers made to displaced households, with survivors offered “rabbit hutch” flats which lack basic facilities such as living rooms, while other properties purchased by the council are still in need of renovation and that will not be ready until 2019.

With already long waiting lists for social housing in the borough, the council spent £235m on buying 307 properties intended for Grenfell residents in the immediate aftermath of the fire in a bid to get all of the survivors rehoused within a year.

But 12 months on, just 81 of these have been moved into. A total of 129 Grenfell households – more than half of those that escaped the blaze – are yet to be permanently housed, with 72 of these stuck in emergency accommodation, many of them families with young children.

The council has been accused of buying properties for survivors too hastily in order to “cover themselves”, without taking into account the needs of individual families or considering how long it would take to ensure the homes were up to standards.

One family from the tower currently still in a hotel is facing another six months waiting for a home after being offered a house that will not be ready to move into until 2019.

In another case, a man who spent six hours in the burning tower before he was rescued and is still in temporary accommodation told The Independent he had been offered “totally unsuitable” properties with no living rooms and in high storey blocks.

Meanwhile, flats sold to the council for the purpose of rehousing people are lying empty months after the blaze. One local resident said she had sold her flat in Westbourne Park to the council last December to help victims, but that it still remained unfilled.

Laure, who did not want to use her last name, said: “I was happy it was going to go to Grenfell victims. But I noticed from walking past that the flat was still empty. I asked the council and they said it was being renovated to meet the council’s requirements.

“It’s strange because the flat was renovated to a high standard. They bought it in December and it is still empty… I feel sorry for the families.”

A report earlier this week by the North Kensington Law Centre, which has provided free legal advice to around 250 households following the fire, found that the council’s rehousing process had fallen “way short” to the point that it had added to the community’s suffering.

Alex Diner, who wrote the report, told The Independent properties were “standing still, idle” because the council had bought them quickly and without ensuring they were suitable for survivors.

“Repair issues, damp, all the rest of it, access issues – a lot of them are in basements. We’ve even heard about fire safety checks being done after they’ve been offered and accepted. Because they did it at such speed, they aren’t all suitable, and they can’t make them suitable overnight,” he said.

He said there was also a “whole range of issues” around basic household needs which didn’t come into the process when the council bought the properties, such as property sizes and considering proximity to hospitals, schools and carers.

“The Grenfell flats were reasonably sized – a lot of the places people have been offered are rabbit hutches. They were promised at least like-for-like stuff. The council has bought a lot of street properties that require you to go down to a basement, which is obviously difficult for a lot of people,” he said.

“What was become clear is that the quality of these housing units does not match the need, and it’s because before they bought the properties they didn’t get a thorough three dimensional assessment of what the needs were.”

Antonio Olmos, 58, who was the penultimate person to be rescued from the fire, is living in a temporary flat and has turned down five properties since the start of the year because they have been “totally unsuitable” for him and his son.

Antonio Roncolato is among the 129 households from Grenfell Tower and the surrounding area that have yet to move into permanent accommodation (Helen Hodinott/The Independent)

“The council’s intentions were very good in the beginning. They assessed our needs. I said I wanted to be away from the tower and no higher than the fourth floor,” he told The Independent.

“But I’ve been offered places on the fifth floor. When you’ve been through what I did, this makes you feel very trapped. And some places have had no living room. I had a nice living room in Grenfell Tower. Why should I have no living room?

“And they have offered flats close to the tower. My son was traumatised by looking at the fire looking at the tower burning and me inside and not knowing if I would make it out or not.

“Why didn’t they really check the assessment that we gave them? These are the basics. Of course, the council would like to rehouse and put us into the flats that they bought. But I’m sorry, we are not things, we are human beings. We have needs and requirements.”

Roy Khalil, director of charity Grenfell Voices who has been supporting a number of families still in hotels and temporary accommodation, said the majority of households still in emergency accommodation were families with children, and had been “harassed” to accept “unacceptable” housing.

“One survivor we work with who has accessibility issues is transitioning into temporary housing after a year living in one hotel room with an infant. The home she accepted won’t be ready until the start of 2019 due to making it accessibility friendly,” he said.

“They put survivors like her on high floors initially, even next to fire alarms which needed to be tested weekly. The lack of leadership and wilful ignorance of the survivors plight has been startling, if not surprising, for this government.

“They have sent a very clear message through their lack of urgency and action that if you are working class and in social housing in Britain your lives and futures hold no value.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who has been in touch with many survivors of the blaze, told The Independent some of the offers they made to Grenfell residents had been “completely inappropriate”.

“If the council was looking at it properly, they would have realised this, but they were so slow at engaging with the disaster and much more concerned about covering themselves,” she continued.

“The council persisted with a way of managing housing and a way of managing their tenants which predated the fire. They brought the kind of disobliging attitudes from the way they ran housing generally to the way they engaged with Grenfell and it was just completely wrong.

“Now there seems to be a take it or leave it attitude. Unforgivably, they try to imply Grenfell residents are too choosy. All they want is a decent home, and to be closer to children’s school and their existing social connections.

“They’ve had 12 months. There is no excuse at all for not being able to offer people suitable housing. Their needs assessment was poor to begin with, and they’ve just moved too slowly.”

As well as the families who fled the fire, a further 128 households from the surrounding Lancaster West Estate were evacuated on 14 June, of which 88 are either in hotels or temporary accommodation and only one has so far secured permanent accommodation.

Many of these families have been told that they must return to their homes before the end of June or lose their council tenancies.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said the tragedy had highlighted the “grim reality” of the UK’s housing crisis, describing a situation in which “communities are divided, social housing tenants are ignored, and we are desperately short of enough good quality social homes”.

A Kensington and Chelsea council spokesperson said: “We have staff doing everything they can to rehouse families as quickly as possible and support them in rebuilding their lives. We have already committed £235m to secure 307 homes, so that people have maximum choice available.”

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