Women-only housing for more equitable living conditions

We are far from a future of equality – to use the numbers from the 2023 WEF Global Gender Gap Report, 131-years-far – even when it comes to the basic need of a home. Radical solutions to tackle the housing problem, then, are required. As radical as the interesting example represented by the recently approved plan to build a women-only block in the UK capital.

In the country, women are 36% more likely than men to struggle to afford housing costs. 69% of them who rent privately worry they won’t be able to afford anywhere decent if their relationship fails. In this scenario, the initiative represents an alternative solution already for its uniqueness. The plan consists of a 15-storey building containing 102 apartments in the district of Ealing in West London. Managed and designed with female occupants in mind, it aims to provide secure and affordable houses for single women – with particular regard for those facing abuse or inequality in the housing market.

According to the Policy of Women Pioneer Housing Association (WPA), the organization that develops and will manage the project, the low-rent flats are intended for any woman by birth or who has a “gender recognition certificate legally declaring them female” or transgender women who “intend to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment”, and non-binary people who meet the required criteria. The project will also specifically focus on those facing domestic abuse or with ethnic and minority backgrounds.

Decent and safe housing

Having a house over our heads is a universal human right. Yet, today, for many (and continuously more), it constitutes a tortuous path to follow, if not an unachievable goal to reach. Admittedly, finding and keeping a decent and safe place to live in has become increasingly difficult, cumbersome and inequitable. It is widespread across Europe, affecting families, singles, young and older people alike. It includes a complexity of situations and challenges that vary vastly among world regions and city areas. Overall, though, what remains relatively constant is the fact that women, particularly those from minorities, are the most affected, to the point that for them, the process of finding a home can easily become – even – extremely dangerous.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report titled “Women and the right to adequate housing” reads: “The right to adequate housing is a central component of women’s right to equality under international human rights law. […] many women and girls live in insecure, undignified and unsafe conditions, at increased risk of homelessness and violence. Forced evictions and other violations of the right to housing disproportionally impact women and reinforce existing inequalities, representing a significant barrier to gender equality.

The housing crisis is one of our time’s big problems. Almost daily, we read about the lack of affordable accommodations, news regarding the rampant, unmanageable market prices, the impact of inflation on living costs, and the worsening conditions to access financing. Less discussed, though, is a gendered perspective on the topic.

The WEF stresses that “housing discrimination is one part of a much larger global inequality problem.” Generally speaking, women have less capital and, therefore, are less able to afford rent or purchase a house. They are often exposed to a great(er) variety of financial and non-financial risks. Consider, for example, the area where they live, the building structures, and the urban landscapes they cross daily (darker alleys, neighbourhoods poorly served by decent public transport, for starters.) And even their relationship status. Because many are economically dependent, they are more easily subject to violence, exploitation or the predatory practice of “sex for rent.”

A “women’s issue”

Indeed, the problem is more than just having a place to call home or a roof over one’s head. Besides all the aspects linked to homelessness, the challenges regard the constant insecurity of being evicted or forced to move to find a suitable (if not any) longer-term solution.

Housing is a women’s issue“, conceded the UK charity Shelter. According to statistics, 87% of rough sleepers in the country are men. Yet women are often “hidden” homeless since they tend to find refuge in public premises, bus stations or 24-hour cafes, fearing acts of violence. Moreover, they represent 60% of people living in temporary accommodations. Not to mention all those who find themselves in total economic dependence and thus have higher chances of being the victim of abuse or some form of slavery.

Despite similar evident inequalities, before its approval this past May, the West London women-only block had been criticized with objections that cited the possibility of anti-social behaviours or the impact of the building on the local environment. Undoubtedly, the plan tackles the tip of the iceberg surrounding housing challenges that women, in particular, experience today. And surely, it does not represent an all-encompassing solution viable for every situation. Nor is it easily scalable to include bigger numbers and more significant projects. However, it shows a current trend of better understanding (and acknowledging) that there are more gendered nuances in how public spaces are designed and housing complexes are built.

Living alone but in a community

Going a step further, communities or even women-only living models can become potential businesses to develop through private arrangements. For example, it is not unusual in Denmark to find “community-style” complexes where extended families live. And it has also recently made the news – again – in the UK capital, another example of a female co-living arrangement.

For a few years now, 26 women have built their “women’s community“, sharing spaces and giving each other time and human support when needed. A system where everyone owns/rent her house and at the same time agree/desire to be living in a women-mostly space (partners and male family members are allowed, even if they are considered guests rather than tenants.) This concept also represents another possible answer to the growing challenge of living alone in old age.

Our societies are getting older, and fewer have extended family support; care costs are skyrocketing, and only some people need, want or can afford to enter a Home. Then, building a community within cities and neighbourhoods can be the right compromise for some to access activities, structures and support – when needed – without compromising the privacy of living alone

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