The systemic barriers to women’s right to housing

March 8, 2021

Even though it’s 2021, women continue to face a unique set of challenges to accessing adequate, accessible and affordable housing.

In this blog, in honour of International Women’s Day, we take a closer look at how gender-based violence, intersectional marginalization, poverty and extreme economic inequality, and the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic have worsened the systemic barriers that women face in housing and continue to jeopardize their right to adequate housing.

What is the ‘right to housing’ and what are ‘systemic barriers’?

Under international human rights law, the ‘right to housing’ is recognized as the right of every person to a safe and secure home where they can live in security, peace and with dignity. A set of standards have also been recognized to ensure that a home is adequate for its inhabitants, including that it is affordable, secure, habitable, accessible, close to services, in an acceptable location, and culturally appropriate.

All of these standards apply to housing in Canada. The National Housing Strategy Act recognizes that housing is a human right, however this right has yet to be realized for many people across the country. Several groups of people face similar housing challenges, not because of their individual circumstances, but because they stem from the same root causes. These are ‘systemic barriers’, and there are several at play that deny the realization of the right to housing for women.

Violence in the home is a violation of women’s right to housing

A violent home is not a safe home, and violence is one of the main drivers of women’s homelessness. According to the rights-based definition that housing must be safe and secure, violence in the home is a clear violation of the right to housing. Given that women account for 79% of those who experience violence by an intimate partner, domestic violence is also a systemic barrier to the realization of women’s right to housing.

Women who experience violence in their housing are at greater risk of remaining in unsafe situations, and are often forced to decide between staying in a violent home, or leaving and experiencing poverty or homelessness, sometimes with their children in tow. Some women who seek to leave an unsafe situation may not be able to find alternative housing that they can afford, and as a result may end up in the shelter system or living on the streets.

This is especially true for women with limited financial resources. In 2018, the Canadian Women’s Foundation estimated that 25% of women work part-time and make up about 70% of Canada’s part-time labour force, making women less likely to be able to afford safe and adequate housing on their own. It also found that women with children who leave their partners and become single parents are five times more likely to live in poverty than if they continued living with their partner.

In Ontario, the Special Priority Policy under the Housing Services Act, 2011 is supposed to safeguard victims of domestic violence from experiencing homelessness by prioritizing their applications for social housing. However, the Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that eligibility criteria which requires women to provide “proof” of violence can leave them at increased risk of staying in an unsafe situation while they attempt to document the violence. They make the case that a rights-based approach would prioritize women’ safety above these types of requirements.

An intersectional approach to address this systemic barrier to women’s right to housing is crucial given that rates and risk of violence are higher among racialized women, Indigenous women, LGBT individuals, and women living with disabilities.

Housing challenges multiply based on women’s intersecting identities

In addition to experiencing higher rates of violence, women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of marginalization based on gender, race, ethnicity, social and economic status, and disability face the most deplorable housing conditions in Canada.

In 2020 the YWCA reported that many trans and non-binary individuals are at increased risk of violence at home, particularly Black and Indigenous trans women, and may also face barriers to accessing housing support through the shelter system which has been segregated by gender. Without housing that is specifically designed and dedicated for women and gender-diverse peoples, the cycles of homelessness, violence, and housing instability will be difficult to break.

Women with disabilities face significant discrimination when trying to access housing, as reported in a 2018 brief by the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University. In particular, landlords exclude them as applicants, evict them or fail to accommodate them for their disability-related needs. The brief also found that these experiences are compounded if the individual with a disability identifies as a woman, a racialized individual, trans, and/or has migrant or precarious status in Canada.

A 2008 study by the Centre for Urban & Community Studies at the University of Toronto demonstrated that migrant women without status are exceptionally vulnerable, and often live in dangerous conditions because of housing instability, poverty, and exploitation. Migrant women lack sufficient rights to secure safe and adequate housing in part because federal law does not guarantee the right to housing to all women regardless of citizenship. Non-status migrant women who are pregnant face additional challenges to access secure employment, which jeopardize their already precarious housing situations, and sometimes force them to enter family shelters.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness found that contradictory and discriminatory policies and practices relating to social assistance, housing support, and child welfare present additional barriers to the right to housing for low-income women. They found that many social assistance systems cut entitlements for mothers when a child is taken away by child welfare, and this also puts her in a position of losing her housing. For women who are transitioning out of public institutions like healthcare systems or prisons, they found that there are insufficient supports available to ensure women can access housing that is affordable and meets their needs. These failures in the public system contribute to severe housing challenges and intergenerational cycles of marginalization, violence, housing instability, and homelessness.

The gendered impacts of the pandemic on women’s housing precarity

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated the already worsening housing crisis in Canada. Women have been disproportionately affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic, which have further contributed to their housing instability and have compounded the systemic barriers to their right to housing.

Income loss and job losses have been disproportionately experienced by women and lower income workers who predominantly rely on rental housing. More than 20,000 women left the workforce between February and October 2020, while about 68,000 men joined it. While women made up just under half of all paid workers in Canada, one month into the pandemic they accounted for two-thirds (63%) of all job losses, and 70% of all job losses among workers aged 25 to 54 years.

The loss of jobs and incomes has contributed to an arrears and evictions crisis across the country, and women are bearing the brunt of this crisis as they are forced to decide between paying rent or putting food on the table, which is especially difficult for single mothers and low-income workers. Racialized women have experienced additional impacts, as the YWCA reported that they earn approximately 58 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men, and they are more likely to work in the lowest-paying occupations that also put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 including as janitors, cashiers, nursing assistants and personal support workers.

While emergency measures, restrictions and stay-at-home orders were issued in order to protect people from these health risks, these measures directly contributed to the sharp increase of a different kind of threat for women who were forced to remain in violent homes.

The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) which represents over 70 shelters, reported that 20 percent of their organizations have experienced an increase in calls since the pandemic began, and calls to Nisa Homes, a transitional home for Muslim and immigrant women and children, doubled in the first few weeks of the pandemic. The Ending Violence Association of Canada reported that this has been especially the case for women with disabilities; Indigenous women; Black and racialized women; non-status, immigrant and refugee women; trans, non-binary, and gender diverse people; sex workers; and women experiencing economic and housing precarity.

The exacerbation of violence against women during the pandemic is a further violation of women’s right to housing, not only because the incidents of violence have increased, but also because it has increased women’s housing precarity during this time. As noted above, single-women led households are five times more likely to live in poverty than those in two-parent households, and they would have faced even greater difficulties escaping a violent home during the pandemic when many low-income women who lost their income or job would have had even fewer resources to dedicate to their housing. On top of this, women escaping a violent home would need to consider the health risks of increased exposure to the virus if they end up staying in a crowded shelter.

Government action is needed to overcome systemic barriers and realize women’s right to housing

The barriers to the realization of women’s right to housing are multiple and complex, and removing them will require a comprehensive approach to address the systemic inequalities faced by women.

All governments have a big role to play to address and remedy the systemic barriers to women’s right to housing, and the Government of Canada has already formally committed to do so in its National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA). The NHSA also commits the federal government to progressively realize this right over time, and requires that affected groups are meaningfully engaged in the process, meaning that the government must work directly with women of all identities to support the realization of their right to housing.

There has never been a more urgent time for the federal government to act on its commitment. We need our governments to ramp up housing supports and services to protect women – particularly racialized women, trans and non-binary individuals, women with disabilities, and migrant women – who are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness, unsafe housing, and systemic violations of their right to adequate housing.

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