Amanda*, a young mum living in the Midlands where rent absorbs 42 per cent of a woman’s income, was left with nowhere to live after her landlord sold her home and she lost her job. Having been declared homeless two days before her birthday, a now pregnant Amanda and her daughter were housed in a single room without cooking facilities. “They put me in temporary accommodation for 11 months,” she says.
Her story is horrifying – and horrifyingly common. A major report published by the Women’s Budget Group has exposed how, in every region across England, a woman on the median income can no longer afford to rent her own home. For men on the higher men’s median income, private rents are only unaffordable in London and the South East.
The authors compared the proportion of median earnings absorbed by median private rents in every English region in 2018. Housing is considered unaffordable when it consumes above one third of a household’s income.
In the North East, where median private rents are lowest, rent absorbs 34 per cent of a woman’s income, compared to 22 per cent of men’s. In the South West, the region with the highest private rents outside the East/South East, rent absorbs 48 per cent of a woman’s income. This is compared to 35 per cent for men. London is unaffordable to both sexes, absorbing 77 per cent of women’s income and 60 per cent of men’s.
“I didn’t receive any money,” Amanda explains, “because I was told I wasn’t eligible for Universal Credit. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was living on £20 a week. I couldn’t even go to the food bank as there was nothing in our accommodation to cook with. We were living off fast food, or what friends could give us. We were housed three bus rides from my daughter’s school.”
Women are trapped in a perfect storm of housing unaffordability. They are more likely to be poorer than men, with the gender pay gap currently at 17.9 per cent. This in turn makes women more dependent on benefits, and therefore disproportionately impacted by recent welfare reforms. The benefit cap in particular, where housing is the first benefit to be cut once the threshold is met, has made it even harder for women to rent a home for themselves and their family.
Women also tend to have caring responsibilities, and are more likely to head up single parent families. This is a further contributor to the gender housing gap. A mum like Amanda needs at least two bedrooms for her growing family. This is out of reach for a single woman earning the median wage, let alone a mother surviving on benefits or low pay.
While the report recognises that most people rent as a couple, the authors argue that housing unaffordability traps women in unhappy relationships, and leaves women vulnerable to unequal power dynamics within the home. For women in violent homes, the cost of private rents is pushing them to make an impossible choice: a roof over their head or abuse – even death. With 1 in 5 women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, the authors report that women are staying in violent relationships due to financial pressures.
A spokesperson from the Department of Communities & Local Government said the government “wants a housing market that works for all and we are making rented housing more affordable. In April we changed the law to protect renters right now by capping tenancy deposits and banning unfair letting agency fees.”
They added that they’re “committed to increasing the supply of social housing” with plans to “deliver 250,000 new affordable homes of a wide range of tenures, including social rent” by 2022. However, the Women’s Budget Group wants the government to go further, by building more social housing and scrapping the benefit cap.
After nearly a year in temporary accommodation, Amanda has finally won an appeal to access Universal Credit and has been rehomed. She now lives in a two bedroom apartment with her baby son and her daughter.
“People who have everything, they don’t realise what others go through,” Amanda said. “I had always worked and then things happen that change your life completely. I want to see change that focuses more on mothers and children – to focus on where children are going to live and how they’re going to live.”
Names have been changed to protect identity.