COVID-19 pandemic has intensified housing crisis for women

“Women are having a difficult time having their rights respected."

Susan Schwartz 4 minute read December 2, 2021

The pandemic has exacerbated a housing crisis in Montreal — a crisis that was already having an outsize effect on women, according to a report by the Table des groupes de femmes de Montréal (TGFM) made public on Wednesday.

Nearly 90 per cent of groups that responded to an online questionnaire by the organization said that women have had more difficulty finding affordable housing since the start of the pandemic. The report identifies as contributing factors rent increases, competition in the rental market, unsafe housing that threatens women’s health and safety; a lack of accessible housing which limits the autonomy of women who live with a disability; increases in evictions; landlord repossessions of units; and harassment from landlords or neighbours.

Among the report’s many recommendations are that governments:

  • implement a public registry to prevent abusive rent increases;
  • implement mandatory universal rent control instead of making recommendations for rent increases; and
  • ban landlord repossessions and evictions when vacancy rates drop below three per cent.

The report also found that there has been an increase in intimate partner violence since the start of the pandemic. A lack of space in women’s shelters, already a problem before, only intensified as lockdowns and curfews left many women trapped in abusive and violent situations or forced them to turn to resources that did not meet their needs, it says.

The TGFM surveyed 59 women’s groups and mixed-gender organizations through focus groups, an online questionnaire and one-on-one meetings during the past year about connections between the pandemic, violence experienced by women, the housing crisis and homelessness; it also analyzed publications and statistical data.

Lockdowns during the pandemic exposed more households to mould and vermin and led to an increase in such health problems as anxiety and depression, according to the report. Yet many women don’t raise these problems with their landlords because they fear being evicted or having their rent increased, the report says. More than half the groups responding to the questionnaire reported that, since the start of the pandemic, women have been increasingly faced with threats, evictions, harassment and landlord repossessions.

Many Montreal women are forced into unaffordable housing or into accepting rent increases because they fear they won’t be able to find rentals elsewhere and unaffordable housing has major impacts on financial stability. Women who are Indigenous, living with a disability, seniors, sexual minorities, immigrants or single parents and particularly affected because they are likely to have lower incomes, according to the report.

“Women are having a difficult time having their rights respected when faced with rent increases, unsanitary dwellings, repossessions, evictions and harassment from either the owners or neighbours,” said Sally Richmond, executive director of Logifem, which provides shelter and care to Montreal women and their children in difficult circumstances that can include conjugal violence, financial difficulties and mental health problems.

They can stay at Logifem, which this week opens a second Montreal facility, for up to a year. Intervention workers help them to decide what kind of housing they want and help them to complete applications for social or community housing. “Our objective is for them to leave for housing that is affordable and adequate,” Richmond said.

Access to affordable housing is increasingly difficult, said Richmond, and it’s not just housing but also services that are needed. With the pandemic and the housing crisis, the work of grassroots organizations has grown more complex. Most organizations that offer social housing have noted an increase in applications since the pandemic. Waiting lists mean that delays and the “dense bureaucracy” involved in allocating social housing create further barriers, according to the report. The shortage also increases crowding in interim housing and emergency shelters.

The pandemic has made the work of the grassroots community support workers more challenging, according to the report; its focus groups revealed exhaustion, even distress, among community support workers; many took leaves of absence or quit.

“There is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure women’s right to housing in Montreal,” says the report’s executive summary. “Organizations on the ground have been working hard, especially over the past several months. Our governments must recognize the right to housing for all women in Montreal, starting with adopting concrete yet ambitious measures to offer adequate housing and support to women who are experiencing difficulties and increase the number of social and community housing units. These efforts should allow Montreal women to choose the living environment that best suits their needs.”

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