HOUSING HAS RIGHTLY MOVED UP the political agenda in recent years as Shelter reports homelessness has increased 64% since the start of the decade. Five million people are on council waiting lists, and affordable housing is virtually non-existent in many parts of the country. The struggle to find, keep and pay for a home hits working class women, their families and communities, especially hard.
As in the 1960s, women today are disproportionately disadvantaged by the housing crisis across the UK. Shelter estimates 30,000 single parent families were made homeless in 2017.
I became homeless in Birmingham at the age of seven along with my mother and two younger siblings. There is strong evidence that families today face the same experience ours did nearly 60 years ago and that the post war progress on housing for working class women is being reversed under the Tories’ Housing and Planning Act 2016. The Act plus benefit cuts has forced millions more working class women into insecure and unaffordable private renting or homelessness, as social housing below extortionate market rates is disappearing.
In the 1960s my family spent six months in bed and breakfasts, abandoned factories, empty houses and finally a hostel, from where we progressed to our first council home – a temporary, damp, one bedroomed flat. A housing officer inspected us weekly for twelve months to prove that we were ‘respectable’ enough to be offered permanent council housing.
Our housing block next to a chemicals factory in inner city Birmingham housed many single parent families, including many with women who had to endure weekend callers seeking sexual services. However, the flat offered enough security to our family so I could attend one school consistently and my mother could confidently leave us to work two jobs in retail and evening bar work.
My mother earned less than men doing the same jobs which meant our family paid more, proportionally, in rent. This gender pay gap persists, currently standing at 17% as the Department of Education reported in May 2017. The UK gender pay gap is one of the highest in Europe, according to Eurostat.
This means households supported by women are still paying higher proportions of their income on rent, struggle to save for rental deposits, and experience less financial security overall.
Under the Tories’ austerity more women are working part-time or have lower-earning jobs, increasing the risk of homelessness and dependency on state benefits. House of Commons data showed that the tax and benefit changes introduced since 2010 resulted in women bearing 86% of the austerity burden.
Unison’s report, Challenging Racism in the Workplace , illustrated the catastrophic effects of austerity on black workers. The disproportionate loss of public sector jobs for black women workers, along with the increase in zerohour contracts employment, has pushed many black workers to use London’s homeless shelters as dormitories.
The Women’s Budget Group briefing shows that women are disproportionately affected by the pernicious effects of universal credit, disability benefit cuts and the Housing Act. Currently single women, just under half of whom have dependent children, claim 52% of housing benefits. The bedroom tax, which reduces housing benefit for every room deemed ‘unoccupied’, particularly affects single parent women. They are more likely to live in a home classed as under-occupied under the government guidelines, due to children who are young enough to share a room or old enough to leave home.
Housing, particularly council rented housing, has a vital role to play in providing a secure environment that enables women to find work, settle and establish roots – enabling their children to access education and community services. Women provide the majority of care support in the UK and are more likely to be the main carers after divorce or separation. Women carers in precarious housing struggle to maintain employment and stable environments for their dependents.
Our family moved from short-term council let to short-term council let, which limited our ability to form healthy school and social relationships. My mother tried to secure employment near to our temporary homes but it wasn’t always possible, so as children we spent many hours alone at home while my mother worried about us and potential social services interventions. Homeless women continue to face the same challenges. Shelter recently reported on the loss of jobs by homeless women who attempt to juggle temporary employment with short-term housing.
In my teens my family experienced domestic violence but there were no available refuge services or alternative housing – and being homeless again was unthinkable.
One in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetime and 8% will suffer domestic violence in any given year according to a 2017 study by the charity Refuge. Housing benefit changes have made it harder for women’s shelters to continue supporting women who flee domestic violence. Funding for domestic violence services fell 24% in 2016-7 on average and many local authorities have no shelters at all. In the same period, 60% of women who approached a refuge for help were turned away – forced to choose between homelessness or remaining with a violent partner. BAME women are even more adversely affected by refuge cuts according to the Runnymede Trust.
Homelessness brings many side effects. Women suffer higher rates of depression and other mental health issues according to a report by Homeless Link, and Shelter found 20% of adults experienced an increase in mental stress in the last five years due to housing problems. Charities working with rough sleepers also point out that women are more likely to be ‘hidden homeless’, either by sleeping on friends’ sofas or by avoiding the detection of street outreach workers.
Like many working women, my mother and siblings learned through our homelessness experiences and formed alliances in tenants’ associations in the struggle for decent council housing. We were inspired by the stories of our sisters’ housing campaigns, starting with the famous fight on Clydeside during the First World War, where working class women led by Mary Barbour won a successful rent-strike involving 20,000 tenants to stop slum landlords hiking tenement rents by a third. The mass rent strikes and the Russian Revolution pressured the government to introduce a post-war subsidy for council housing. As the parliamentary secretary to the Local Government Board said: "The money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution.”
Many other impressive housing campaigns with working class women at the forefront have included the largescale squatting campaigns in the 1940s, which occupied disused army bases, holiday camps and even a street of abandoned luxury Kensington flats. Women workers participated again in the 1972 rent strikes against the Tories’ Housing Finance Act that sought to raise council rents. The National Coal Board planned a strategy of mass evictions against the miners striking in the ’70s and ’80s. Women and their families in mining communities stopped bailiffs evicting families while the miners were picketing or travelling the country seeking solidarity funds to support their families during the strike.
In the past three years, large numbers of community campaigns have grown up to defend estates against social cleansing, such as BoleynDev 100, Save Our Island Homes, New Era, Focus E15, the Aylesbury, Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers, Sweets Way and many more. Working women are at the forefront of these campaigns and have campaigned successfully to replace Labour councillors in Haringey and Newham who have failed to protect and develop council housing in their communities.
In my own borough, Reclaim Holloway, along with Labour Party members and other community groups, have called on London Mayor Khan to purchase the women’s Holloway prison site to build decent, secure, safe homes for the people of Islington. Community plans for a women’s building are also in place to create a positive legacy out of the site’s history. Currently the highest profile example of a community working together to expose and challenge the housing crisis is the Grenfell support campaign, which unites survivors, housing activists, trade unions like the FBU, and politicians to fight for justice and permanent homes for Grenfell survivors.
Labour MPs and councillors should be at the forefront of these campaigns, stressing that the only solution to the housing crisis is to scrap the Housing and Planning Act, control rents in the private sector and invest in existing and new/ reclaimed council housing.
Jeremy Corbyn has committed to building 100,000 new council homes and ending the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts when Labour takes power. We have to support Jeremy by strengthening the fight inside Labour for council housing commitments and bring Labour together with our trade unions and communities to ensure the future Labour government delivers a socialist housing policy fit for the many.
Once my family had secured a permanent home we survived and thrived. For this generation of homeless women, a Labour victory is the only way to ensure that they too get that opportunity.
is Chair of Islington North CLP.