We are facing a serious housing crisis which is hitting women the hardest – trapping many in a cycle of debt, inadequate homes and even abusive relationships. To truly tackle this issue, the government needs to address structural inequality, Just Fair’s Imogen Richmond-Bishop writes.
Millions of people across the country are spending unsustainable amounts of money to live in unsuitable and cramped conditions, waiting lists for social housing are through the roof, and housing benefit does not cover the cost of an average rent. This leaves tenants facing an unaffordable shortfall in their incomes, pushing them into rent arrears and even homelessness.
Research by the Women’s Budget Group released on Thursday shows how this crisis is disproportionately affecting women. It found that women earning the median salary, which is the middle number in a series, cannot afford to rent or buy an averagely priced property in any region across England.
Housing Affordability For Women
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As we know there is still a pernicious yet preventable gender pay gap in the UK. This in turn leads to a gender gap in housing affordability.
For women who are looking to buy a house, they will need over 12 times their annual salaries to be able to do so, yet men need just over eight times.
For renting, there is currently no region in England where private rented housing is affordable on women’s median earnings. At the same time, men can afford to rent a median home in all regions except London.
Renting also comes with its own challenges and despite the growth of the private rental sector, the UK is seriously lagging behind in its protection of the right to adequate housing. As it stands, the law does not protect all tenants if a landlord fails to maintain a property in a standard that is fit for human habitation. Tenants can also be evicted without reason under section 21 of the Housing Act – although the government announced plans to abolish this law in April.
Reforms since 2012 have broken the link between rent and housing benefit levels. In 2015, 90 percent of households receiving housing benefit in private rental accommodation faced a shortfall.
Women make up 60 per cent of housing benefit claimants and are therefore being disproportionately affected by these changes.
It is not just housing benefit changes that have affected women to a greater extent, a cumulative impact assessment by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found women on average have lost just under £400 per year compared to a nearly £30 loss by men due to overall changes in direct taxes and benefits since 2010.
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One of the most serious and the most clear violations of the right to housing is homelessness.
And unfortunately it is on the rise again. The National Audit Office found that homelessness in all its forms was on the increase and that the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms had not been evaluated.
The majority of statutory homeless people were women, with single mothers representing two thirds of all statutory homeless families with children. Housing benefit reforms are a significant contributory factor as well as lack of social or affordable housing.
Women are believed to be under represented in the rough sleeping statistics as they are often being missed during street counts and there is a lack of contact with homelessness services.
Women who are rough sleeping have a life expectancy of 42 years, and men have a life expectancy of 44 years. The overall average life expectancy in the UK is respectively 82.9 years and 79.2 years.
How Certain Groups Of Women Face Housing Challenges
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Women who are facing domestic violence abuse are often forced to flee their homes, but years of sustained cuts to council budgets for funding women’s refuges mean that one in five women are turned away due to lack of vacancy.
These women then often have to face the choice of returning to an abusive household where their life is at risk or face homelessness.
Women with no recourse to public funds have no access to statutory homeless support or welfare payments, meaning that they are particularly vulnerable to challenges. They are also at increased risk of being trapped in an abusive relationship because they are unable to access domestic violence refuges or other forms of statutory support.
What Is The Right To Housing?
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We all have a right to adequate housing, but like other socio-economic rights – such as our right to food or our right to health – the right to housing has not been brought home into domestic legislation.
The right to adequate housing is clearly recognised in a number of international human rights instruments of which the UK is a signatory, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) also contains provisions to prevent gender-based discrimination when it comes to land access and housing, as well as adequate living standards.
Women’s particular needs and unique challenges when it comes to the right to housing have been raised and investigated by a number of human rights bodies such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and various UN special rapporteurs. The findings from these reports often conclude that whilst some countries recognise gender equality in their domestic legislation, women’s structural socio-economic disadvantage in society means that they are still facing discrimination due to their gender.
So What Can Be Done?
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The housing crisis is an urgent public policy issue affecting millions of people. It is damaging people’s health, impeding their ability to put food on the table and their enjoyment of an adequate standard of living. Importantly, it can be tackled.
More social housing needs to be built, and urgently. Shelter has found that building 3.1 million social homes over the next 20 years would pay for itself in money saved on housing benefit.
Local housing allowance rates should be restored so that they reflect the average cost of local rents. Rental controls and increased rental protections need to be introduced so as to ensure that rents do not stay unaffordable and policies such as no fault Section21 evictions are banned.
Homelessness duties should be extended to all people regardless of their immigration status, and the model for domestic violence refuges should be reviewed to ensure women with no recourse to public funds, amongst others, are able to access this vital service.
Money for housing refuges should be ring-fenced within council budgets and the allocation reviewed so as to ensure that no woman is turned away. In order to get a better idea of homelessness, the data collected by councils needs to be sex disaggregated.
But even this won’t be enough if the specific structural inequalities that women face are not tackled head on.
Want to learn more?
- Read a news piece on increased instances of homeless people being fined.
- Take a look at a summary of the High Court’s ‘right to rent’ decision.
- See our explainer covering socio-economic rights.