International Women’s Day 2019: Women and the housing crisis

What would a feminist analysis of our broken housing system look like?

I recently helped to put on an event where we discussed how the church might use its land and disused buildings to tackle the dearth of affordable housing in this country. One of the speakers talked about the need to support people in the private rental sector suffering from appalling, Dickensian levels of damp, overcrowding and disrepair. As an active member of the community, she said, I feel a level responsibility to support those living in less fortunate situations than me.” Although,” she added there are five of us in our house and only three beds.”

In what kind of society can such overcrowded living conditions be thought of as fortunate’? Here’s the answer: in a society in the grips of an unconscionable housing crisis. On International Women’s Day, surrounded by a cacophony of hollow chatter about increasing women’s participation in the top strata of the economy, it is worth taking a close look at how our economy inherently oppresses women – and our housing market, as a living example of the neoliberal principles of privatisation and deregulation, is a good place to start.

The impact the housing crisis has on groups who are already structurally marginalised in society is particularly severe. Our flawed housing system can function to exacerbate the existing layers of oppression which women navigate. Lower incomes and lone parenting are more prevalent amongst women, who have suffered disproportionately from the effects of austerity, with women of colour worst affected. Evidence shows that women have disproportionately suffered from the housing crisis. The result of this is that women are more likely to be forced into poor quality housing in the absence of an affordable alternative.

As conditions have worsened in the private rented sector, and prices have climbed to unaffordable levels (with UK renters spending 40% of their monthly paycheque on housing) the expectations of what is reasonable for renters to demand from their homes have shrunk, along with the amount of space in the homes themselves.

The impact the housing crisis has on groups who are already structurally marginalised in society is particularly severe.”

Our housing system works on neoliberal principles – which include extracting as much value from a product as possible whilst inputting as little as possible into its creation. These principles are looming larger over our living environments with the rise of postage stamp sized apartments. In 2017, reports emerged of dog kennel’ apartments being built in Barnet – part of a recent trend in converting office spaces into accommodation. Women, who disproportionately shoulder caring responsibilities, might face having to do so in living environments in homes which are 40% smaller than the average Travelodge room, and household appliances are stacked on top of each other to save space.

It is not difficult to imagine the strife caused by facing the impossibility of care in cramped living conditions, especially considering how poor housing negatively impacts children’s mental and physical health. Evidence shows that poor quality housing has a disproportionate impact on women — research by NatCen and Shelter found mothers were more likely to suffer clinical depression if they lived in bad housing, with 10% of mothers in acutely bad housing suffering from clinical depression.

Alongside the material challenge, there is the emotional burden of social expectations for women to curate a domestic sanctuary. Marxist feminists highlight how women are expected to revive and reproduce the capitalist workforce in the domestic environment – a burden which has been only added to with the increase of women in the formal workplace. The increasing difficulty of managing either– with a lack of adequate income from the capitalist workplace and a substandard domestic environment – means that women are given the implicit message that they have failed in living up to societal expectations – which spells bad news for maintaining good mental health and wellbeing.

In this context, the current fire sale of public land to the highest bidder – which has seen a number of mental health hospitals being sold off to private developers — leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. NEF has made the case for public land sites such as these to be retained and used for social housing which women rely upon particularly heavily.

The failure to connect unacceptable living standards in the private rented sector, the UK’s current mental health crisis, and entrenched gender inequality, is not an oversight. As long as we continue to perpetuate a system which has rolled back protective regulations on the standards of housing, we continue to allow a system which saddles the most marginalised groups in society with pressures which will inevitably take a toll on mental health.

Rather than seeking to advocate for the rights of women on the grounds of strengthening the capitalist economy, we must recognise how this system works to oppress women. We should prioritise women’s mental health and wellbeing. Organisations like the Women’s Budget Group have worked had to illuminate the impact of the housing crisis on women. And newly founded groups like the Women’s Housing Forum are fighting for better housing on these terms. Vast numbers of women in the U.K today are experiencing the appalling decline in housing standards, leaving them more likely to have to face the impossibility of caring for their families and themselves in stifling living environments.

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