It is difficult to recognize violence, poet and dramatist Bert Brecht wrote in the middle of the 20th century. Not when it hits you with a knife or bullet – but cloaked in the habits of inequality it evades detection and thus flees justice. Grenfell Tower was home to those who lived there, but administered as housing. Violence festers and burns on this divide. A home is more than a roof over your head. It is a place of refuge and community, to be safeguarded and valued, in which the meanings of our lives entwine and unfold. Housing, by contrast, evokes red tape, regulations and deficit reduction. “Human beings,” as Bert Brecht observed, “live in holes, year-in year-out, which are not any friendlier than dungeons, and it is no more possible for them to get out of there than to escape dungeons. Of course, there are no jailors guarding these doors.” It is a peculiar form of homelessness that puts a roof over your head but leaves you without the power to truly inhabit, to own and trust it. His insights are as topical as ever despite the fact that he died in 1956, having himself been exiled during the Third Reich.
This is a cultural history of housing that kills, itself skeletal and incomplete not because of a lack of examples but because of their abundance. Writers have been exposing this particular form of violence for centuries, so let’s have a look at how their ideas can help us shape our thoughts and envision a different future.