Women are paying attention to parties’ housing agenda – it’s time parties pay attention to women

It’s no secret to anyone that we are currently facing a housing crisis in the UK and so it’s fitting that for this General Election every political party has a plan to solve it or to mitigate its effects.

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This is a crisis that is having a specific and often disproportionate impact on women due to their lower earnings, lower levels of wealth and the links between housing and domestic abuse.

Any robust plan to successfully tackle our housing challenges needs to take these gender-specific issues into account.

In the last two decades house prices have increased dramatically while wages have not followed suit.

Our housing crisis is therefore a crisis of affordability: the average worker now needs eight times their annual salary to buy the average house in England, compared to just four times twenty years ago.

It is also a crisis of availability: we now have nearly two million fewer social homes than in 1997 despite a population growth of seven million.

This matters because a significant number of people will never afford to buy or rent in the private sector.

With fewer social-rented houses, local councils are finding it very difficult to fulfil their statutory homelessness duties and support vulnerably-housed people into permanent and safe accommodation.

Both crises of affordability and availability have a specific impact on women.

As women earn less, have lower incomes and own less wealth, the crisis of housing affordability hits them harder.

Recent research by the Women’s Budget Group showed that women on average earnings cannot afford to rent an average priced house in the private sector in any region in England (men can afford any region except London).

Even though many people rent and buy jointly, usually with their partner, unaffordable housing has significant consequences for women’s ability to be financially independent and to leave unwanted – and sometimes abusive – relationships.

And this is vital to fix as domestic abuse is linked to women’s homelessness: 61% of women who are homeless have experienced domestic abuse and a third of women who have slept rough have left home to escape violence.

The unavailability of social housing is making local councils’ task of housing homeless people harder.

The most extreme reflection of the housing crisis has a predominantly male face: 84% of people sleeping rough are men and so we need to make sure that men’s needs and higher likelihood of sleeping rough are addressed.

But for every person we see sleeping rough on the streets, there are a further 12 households who are homeless – that is, they do not have a home.

Women are two-thirds of the people classed as homeless and certain groups of women, like single mothers, are overrepresented in the homeless population.

Since 2010 we have had increasing numbers of rough-sleepers, of children living in unsuitable temporary accommodation, and women at risk of sexual exploitation through sofa surfing and sex-for-rent ads.

What are the parties’ plans to solve these issues?

All parties are committed to building more houses in the next five years, with Labour and the Conservatives planning a million more homes in the next parliament.

But the kind of houses planned matters greatly for who is going to benefit.

The Conservatives are focusing their efforts on would-be homeowners, including discounts for local first-time buyers, expansion of shared ownership schemes and extension of 5% deposits for mortgage-buyers.

On the other hand, Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens all pledge to build at least 100,000 social homes per year in the coming years.

To reflect the increasing proportion of people renting in the private-sector, in particular young people, each party’s manifesto includes something for renters too.

Rent controls are a popular measure and is espoused by all parties currently in opposition.

This is usually capping rent increases to inflation although some parties go further and want to give cities power to cap rents further (Labour) or to keep rents in line with local incomes (Green Party).

Conservatives, Labour and Greens all pledge to end ‘no-fault evictions’ and Labour, Greens and Lib-Dems want to introduce longer-term tenancies.

This is good news for private-renters, as end of an assured shorthold tenancy is the main cause for homelessness.

For private-renters on housing benefit, there are promises to increase the local housing allowance rates to the current 30th percentile of local rents (Labour Party) or to the average (50th percentile) rents (Liberal-Democrats).

This is likely to impact women positively as women are the majority (60%) of people in households claiming housing benefit.

Affordability features high on the housing agenda of the parties.

Conservatives and Labour in particular specifically talk about building affordable homes.

The crux of these policies is of course the concept of ‘affordable’: currently it can be up to 80% of private-market prices, while Labour wants to match affordable homes to average local incomes.

This still risks leaving many women out of the affordable market, as women’s median earnings are lower than men’s.

Finally, some political parties recognise the links between domestic abuse and homelessness and pledge to increase funding for women’s refuges (Labour and Lib-Dems) and the Liberal-Democrats want to introduce a new duty on local authorities to house victims of domestic violence.

The housing crisis is one of the most urgent policy issues of our time and it is time all political parties design a plan for tackling it.

This can only be done successfully when we recognise that increasingly large numbers of people will never afford to private-rent or buy, and so building more social homes is crucial.

Any housing plan can only succeed when it takes into account the specific housing needs of women and the challenges that they face.

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