LONDON – Like many across England, Sarah Rennie has lost sleep over fears her building will catch fire, especially as inspectors have found the skyscraper to be wrapped in a combustible material similar to the one that caused the deadly fire in 2017 triggered in London’s Grenfell Tower.
But Ms. Rennie’s fear increases. She uses a wheelchair.
The Grenfell disaster, which killed 72 people, forced a national accounting for unsafe building practices. As a result, people with disabilities are particularly concerned about the dangers lurking in their buildings – and the lack of plans for a safe exit in the worst case.
“The more you unravel, the deeper and darker it gets,” Ms. Rennie, 35, said of the dangerous building defects Grenfell uncovered.
An investigation into the fire in the public apartment block, where many lower-income residents lived, found that the flames continued to spread unabated because of the tower’s cladding, a combustible aluminum composite that covers the exterior. The same material has been banned in the US and much of Europe because it poses a fire hazard.
The government has turned its attention to removing the paneling from other high-rise buildings, but many residential buildings have a host of other fire hazards that have not yet been addressed. And rights groups say the government ignores people with disabilities and the unique risks they face in the event of fire.
“We were an afterthought to everything,” said Fazilet Hadi, policy director for Disability Rights UK.
The past year has made this clearer than ever, Ms. Hadi said, noting that people with disabilities account for nearly 60 percent of all coronavirus deaths in England and Wales. It has also given the government an excuse not to act, she said.
“The pandemic is going to be an excuse for everything right now, isn’t it?” Ms. Hadi said.
Investigations after the Grenfell fire revealed widespread fire hazards not only in publicly funded high-rise buildings, but also in many private residential buildings – a result of decades of deregulation that made sloppy construction work possible. Other safety issues such as flammable balconies and various types of flammable cladding have been identified in residential buildings across England.
Hundreds of thousands of homes are affected, and experts say it could take years to remedy. The cost to solve just some of the problems has been estimated at an estimated £ 15 billion, or more than $ 21 billion.
For residents with disabilities, the problems are in a different order overall.
Not only are they concerned that they might live in fire traps like Grenfell, but that no one has considered the unique challenges they would face if they suddenly had to evacuate.
Then there is the economic cost.
For any homeowner, the bill for trying to make their home safer can be staggering. But the financial burden hits homeowners with disabilities particularly hard, as many have a steady income, said Ms. Hadi.
Disabled people are also more likely to live in public housing, which is where some of the worst security breaches can be found.
Grenfell forced a new look not only at the construction of buildings but also at what residents should do if a fire breaks out.
In particular, the “Stay Put” directive, a long-standing directive in apartment blocks that advised people to stay in their homes if a fire broke out elsewhere in the building, has been questioned. That advice proved fatal in Grenfell, investigators found. Many residents died after being sheltered on site, trapped on higher floors.
“I have been constantly told that it is best for you to stay and is safer for you,” Ms. Rennie said, recalling the guidance she received in 2008 when she bought her apartment on the 13th floor of her Birmingham building. “We see from the Grenfell investigation that staying was the wrong decision. Now our confidence in the system is damaged. “
The investigators legally recommended that builders create personal evacuation plans for all residents whose ability to exit could be impaired. But the government dragged its feet until the family of a disabled woman who died in Grenfell was threatened with legal action.
Talks are now ongoing, but in the meantime disabled residents have had to deal with the problem on their own – with mixed results.
Ms. Rennie was able to work with the management of her building to obtain an evacuation chair and an emergency exit plan. Others were less fortunate.
Georgie Hulme, 42, inherited her third floor apartment in Manchester from her mother and said she had always loved living in her “vibrant, diverse and unique” neighborhood. Despite fire safety problems in her building, she received no management support to meet her evacuation needs.
Ms. Hulme has complex disabilities and is a wheelchair user. Even if she is on the third floor, she is vulnerable in an emergency. She communicates through a text-to-speech device and fears that people with disabilities will not be heard.
Ms. Hulme said “nobody seems to want the responsibility” to develop and pay for evacuation plans and equipment – such as special chairs or handrails – for disabled residents.
“We shouldn’t have to advocate equal escape routes in a fire,” she said.
Ms. Hulme said she could “see no future, only bankruptcy and the loss of my house” as she and her neighbors feared having to pay for expensive building renovations.
Most private homes in England, such as those of Ms. Hulme and Ms. Rennie, are sold as long-term leases, with the buildings themselves being owned by an “owner” – often an investment group. It was difficult for local residents and the government to hold developers responsible for the costs. As a result, the tenants generally had to bear the cost of security improvements.
Moving is often not an option.
Many owners cannot sell because banks are unwilling to offer new mortgages to potential buyers on properties with combustible materials.
The new funding announced by the government earlier this month aims to ease the financial burden on tenants but doesn’t go far enough, say real estate experts, opposition politicians and some members of the ruling Conservative party. The money is only for high-rise buildings and only deals with the problem of cladding.
That means that homeowners facing other security issues may still have large loans or go bankrupt.
The management of Ms. Rennie’s building, Brindley House, has requested funding to But she still faces skyrocketing insurance premiums, high service fees, and the cost of fire patrols around the clock.
“It just feels like we’re being freed of every penny we have in the meantime,” she said. “I think that feels so immoral.”
A spokesman for the Department of Housing, Community and Local Government said it was doing everything in its power to incorporate all of the Grenfell Inquiry recommendations “in the most practical, proportionate and effective way to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again. ”
“We continue to work with disabled groups on building safety issues, including accessible and adaptive housing regulations, to provide guidance on evacuation for disabled people,” the spokesman said in a statement.
However, proponents say that action is needed now and that buildings with dangerous fire gaps need to come up with evacuation plans.
Ms. Hulme and Ms. Rennie founded an organization to raise their voices. The group has received support from a growing number of lawmakers and has had initial discussions with the government.
Together with other disability rights groups, they are working to bring disabled people and security professionals together to set clear priorities for the government.
“But that will take time,” said Ms. Hulme, “and in the meantime some of us are living in extremely unsafe buildings with no plans.”