Housing is a women’s issue, and the UK’s current housing system creates gendered experiences that harm and endanger women.
By Housing & Asylum Support Caseworker Alice Coles and Housing & Social Welfare Solicitor Siobhan Taylor - Ward.
Research conducted by the Women’s Housing Forum shows that women make up 60% of housing benefit claimants and that, at the time of publishing, the majority of statutory homeless people were women. On top of this, two thirds of all statutory homeless families with children were single mother families.
But these statistics are not surprising. Every day, Vauxhall Law Centre works with women who are subject to intersecting vulnerabilities that inform the way they navigate and experience homelessness and housing services.
We know that women bear the brunt of unpaid work and are typically responsible for meeting care needs within the home, and our work tells us that women are more likely to look after dependent children when there is relationship breakdown. Vauxhall Law Centre regularly works with women who are single parents and who are solely responsible for the physical, emotional and financial care of their children. Such mums typically experience the increased financial precarity that is associated with inconsistent hours and wage fluctuations. For single mums, financial instability can mean that rent arrears are accrued as finite financial resources are directed to essential living needs including food and energy bills. These challenges are amplified in households subjected to the bedroom tax, benefit caps, older dependent relatives and dependent relatives with disabilities.
Since January 2021 we have seen many single mothers who are working in insecure and fairly low paid work who have been priced out of Legal Aid as a result of the restrictive means test. We are a grant funded housing advice provider and have been able to take these cases on and assist these families pro bono. In the majority of cases, we have been able to avoid eviction as a result of finding that the eviction notices served were invalid. In others, we have been able to assist the women to bring down their rent arrears and avoid crippling debt repayment through the use of Discretionary Housing Payments and help from Housing Options acting under their Prevention Duty. Many of these women would have been forced into poor quality private rented accommodation without legal advice and support due to the current housing market in our area.
We know that the UK’s housing crisis means affordable, appropriate housing is scarce and that this scarcity extends into social housing. Often, a severe lack of social housing means women are waiting for months for appropriate housing, typically in temporary or emergency accommodation. The effect of long-term stays in accommodation designed for the short-term on women and children is profound. This accommodation is often within hotels and doesn’t offer separate living spaces or kitchen facilities which has a negative impact on the development and wellbeing of children, and women’s ability to care for their families.
One of our clients is a single mother of a toddler, she is currently 8 months pregnant. She first presented as homeless in March 2021 when sofa surfing with family and friends. As a result of gate keeping by the Local Authority, she was not given any assistance until months later when she became street homeless. She was placed into an apart-hotel with her toddler and has been there since. We were instructed after the mother had been in the hotel for 2 months already and since being instructed we have made numerous attempts to improve her situation. This culminated in a successful complaint with both an offer of accommodation and an offer to back date her Band A status on Property Pool to March 2021, a solution we have been asking for for three months. Unfortunately, these solutions have come too late as the client is now due to give birth and bring her new baby home to the hotel as it is unlikely her property will be ready for her before the birth. Her homelessness has led to increased stress during her pregnancy leading to complications and repeated hospital attendances. She is struggling to raise her toddler in crowded and unsuitable surroundings and has been left to manage the situation alone as a single mother.
The way women experience homelessness and housing issues is also influenced by intersections of protected characteristics. For instance, homelessness is disproportionately high amongst trans women and LGBTQ+ service provision is not routinely built into mainstream homelessness or domestic abuse services. The lack of LGBTQ+ appropriate service provision, or even awareness, has a profound impact on women’s accessibility to services. Stonewall Housing has found that a third of LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic abuse didn’t report their abuse because they didn’t think they would be taken seriously, and that LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic abuse want access to more services and for the quality of those services to improve.
Homelessness legislation in the UK states that in order for a person to be eligible for full assistance to relieve their homelessness a person must be in priority need. Though pregnancy and having a child in your household will place a woman in this category gender or sexuality will not be considered to increase a homeless person’s vulnerability on its own. One client of ours had presented as homeless after she was evicted from her home. She had been told that the Local Authority could not provide accommodation for her as she was not in priority need. She was forced to sleep on a pew of a local church, on two occasions she was sexually assaulted by a man also staying in the church. As a result of this disclosure, we were able to convince the Local Authority that this client was in fact vulnerable. She was then provided with temporary accommodation and assistance to move on to settled accommodation. It should not be necessary for a homeless woman to be sexually abused or assaulted for them to be given the protection, help and support that they need. Secure housing provides more than just a roof for most women, it also provides them with a place they can be safe.
Migrant women with no recourse to public funds are excluded from accessing welfare benefits, including housing benefits, and therefore find it near impossible to access refuge spaces. For context, only 4% of refuges are open to those with no recourse to public funds. Vauxhall Law Centre has supported countless women who have tried to leave abusive relationships but have been turned away by housing services and social services due to their immigration status. The impact of this is that women and children are forced to live in abusive domestic settings and women feel compelled to remain with abusive partners due to their insecure immigration status. Even when a legal representative can be found to represent a woman in these circumstances, it often involves lengthy advocacy and casework which causes unnecessary emotional trauma and instability to women and children.
We have sadly dealt with many cases where female victims of domestic violence with leave to remain in the UK and recourse to public funds have approached the Local Authority for help to escape their abusive partner and have also been turned away. Victims report being met with disbelief and dangerous advice. Numerous clients have disclosed that they fear they will be hurt by their partner if they return home and have been told that if anything happens they should just call the police. We have repeatedly heard how women have been told that the coercive and controlling behaviour and financial and psychological abuse they have suffered is not in fact domestic abuse but is simply a “relationship breakdown”; which absolves the Local Authority from accepting that the person is in priority need. There appears to be a serious bias against believing victims when they disclose domestic violence in all its forms. There is a distinct lack of understanding of the fact that physical violence is not necessary in order for a situation to be classed as domestic abuse. This lack of understanding coupled with a desire to protect budgets through gatekeeping has led to extremely concerning situations where women are left choosing between rough sleeping or returning to their abuser. It is useless for public authorities to make declarations of support for victims of domestic abuse unless this is put into practice on the frontline.
Women are also subjected to racism within the UK housing system. 2012 saw the introduction of the government’s Right to Rent policy which requires landlords to check the immigration of prospective tenants. Failure to do so could result in fines and prison time. The Court of Appeal has found that the Right to Rent policy makes it harder for ethnic minorities and migrants to rent than it is for white British people to rent. The policy is racist, and encourages landlords to offer tenancies to white British people due to the associated ‘lower risk’. Whilst the government has chosen not to act on these findings, arguing that they are not responsible for landlords ‘choosing’ to discriminate, ethnic minority and migrant women bear the brunt of the policy.
Research shows us that when social services support is provided to families with no recourse to public funds, domestic abuse is often a key factor in their needing support. It also tells us the Right to Rent checks have racist implications for migrant women and families. Yet, in spite of research showing just how urgently migrant women need housing support, the government remains committed to entrenching vulnerabilities further, seen in the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill – which failed to include essential protections for migrant women - and the steady progress of the Nationality and Border’s Bill – which enshrines hostile immigration policies further into UK law through Parliament. Despite the bedroom tax being proven as having a negative impact on women survivors of domestic abuse, and women being disproportionately represented in homelessness, welfare benefits and social housing, the government has continued to reduce their spending on housing, continued to reduce housing benefit and continued to treat housing assets and rental income favourably in the taxation system.
Whilst the government continues to increase structural barriers to services and reduces fair access to housing, it is the most marginalised women who feel the impact.
The International Women’s Day 2022 theme is to ‘break the bias’, and we at Vauxhall Law Centre remain committed to removing biases wherever we find them.
 https://www.womenshousingforum.org/our-research-2  https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/womenshouldertheresponsibilityofunpaidwork/2016-11-10  https://www.homeless.org.uk/connect/blogs/2019/feb/13/making-homelessness-services-more-trans-inclusive  https://stonewallhousing.org/project/roar/  Ibid.  https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Nowhere-to-Turn-for-Children-and-Young-People.pdf  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/apr/21/right-to-rent-rule-justified-finds-uk-appeal-court  https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/project/local-government-welfare-responses-to-children-and-families-who-have-no-recourse-to-public-funds/  https://www.bihr.org.uk/news/the-ecthr-hr-vaw  https://wbg.org.uk/analysis/uk-policy-briefings/2019-wbg-briefing-housing-and-gender/#:~:text=67%25%20of%20adults%20in%20households,2%5D%20reflecting%20women's%20lower%20incomes.