How the US Can Prevent a Fire Like Grenfell Tower

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How the US Can Prevent a Fire Like Grenfell Tower

Protesters hold signs calling for justice for the victims of the Grenfell Disaster and shout slogans as they march towards Westminster during an anti-government protest on June 21, 2017 in London, England. A series of protests are held in the capital in response to the Queen's Speech including a 'Day of Rage' organized by the Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

At least 80 people are missing and presumed dead after a devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, a high-rise apartment building in London. It’s the deadliest fire in Britain in more than a century.

This fire is, unequivocally, a tragedy—particularly because it was so preventable. Investigators say the root causes were lax regulation and an unwillingness to invest in basic safety features. Residents had repeatedly warned that their living conditions were dangerous, pointing out that the building didn’t have fire alarms, sprinklers, or a fire escape, and there was only one stairway for people to get out and one road for firefighters to get in.

The fire has been a wake-up call for British politicians about a dangerous lack of investment in safe housing. Unfortunately, Britain is not the only country that has underinvested in safe homes.

A report by the Federal Healthy Homes Work Group found that more than 30 million homes in the United States are putting their occupants at risk. Six million homes have moderate to severe infrastructure problems, such as substandard heating, plumbing, and electrical wiring. Another 23 million homes have lead-based paint hazards, and 6.8 million homes have dangerously high levels of radon exposure. This means that millions of families face increased risk of lung cancer from radon exposure, fire-related injuries, and lead poisoning.

So far, the Trump administration has stymied efforts to address these problems. The administration’s proposed $6 billion in budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would severely curtail efforts to provide safe and affordable housing.

At least $300 million in cuts would come from rental assistance programs such as the housing choice vouchers program, which means that 250,000 people could lose access to housing vouchers. Landlords participating in the housing choice voucher program commit to extensive property maintenance and safety standards that other private landlords serving very low-income families are often not required to meet. When families who cannot pay their rent are evicted, they often move into homes with more health and safety hazards, which is why children who are evicted are twice as likely to be in poor health.

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More than 30 million homes in the United States are putting their occupants at risk

The Trump administration’s budget also calls for direct cuts to the HUD public housing Capital Fund, the program that funds repairs to public housing. The budget would slash the fund by more than half, so that 212,000 fewer units would receive the repairs they need next year. It also means that local public housing authorities—which rely on this funding to address fire hazards before they become disasters and address health risks like mold, lead, and rodent infestations—could be short on their budgets.

Even indirect cuts, such as the proposed elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), will put more people at risk. LSC funds civil legal aid organizations that help low-income households bring lawsuits against landlords who refuse to deal with potentially deadly living conditions. After similar cuts to legal aid in Britain, residents of Grenfell Tower were unable to afford legal advice when they had concerns about their building’s safety.

We’re not doomed yet. Fire deaths have been dropping across the United States due to stronger building safety codes. Most states ban the usage of flammable aluminum cladding in tall buildings, which contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Still, the Trump administration has promised to dramatically cut back on important safety regulations. Trump’s recent executive order that requires eliminating two regulations every time a new one is created forces agencies to choose which life-saving regulations they should prioritize to comply with the rule. Congress is now considering the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would add so many hurdles to the regulatory process that companies that produce dangerous products could delay regulations indefinitely. The Environmental Protection Agency faced similar roadblocks when it tried to ban asbestos—a known carcinogen—more than 25 years ago. Asbestos manufacturers used hurdles in the regulatory process to their advantage and blocked the agency from removing this toxic substance from commerce. Since 1999, at least 12,000 Americans have died every year because of asbestos exposure. Under the Trump administration, long-awaited asbestos regulations and many other critical protections may never be implemented.

In a chilling letter written just months before the building caught fire, residents of Grenfell Tower warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” Americans shouldn’t wait for a tragedy of this magnitude. Investing in the health and safety of low-income Americans begins with the funding decisions Congress will make this year.

Miriam Pierson

Miriam Pierson is a rising senior at Swarthmore College and a summer intern at the Center for American Progress.

Sarah Edelman

Sarah Edelman is the Director of Housing Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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