Assistant Professor Joanne Heritz shared preliminary results of the research project she headed studying affordable housing for women in Niagara

The lack of affordable, safe housing in Niagara hits women and gender-diverse people particularly hard, says a recent Brock University-Niagara YWCA policy brief.

But it is more than just a shortage of inexpensive shelter that sees women and gender-diverse people being disproportionality locked out of the affordable housing system, says the brief, “Improving Safe and Affordable Housing for Women in Niagara, Before and After COVID-19.”

“There needs to be systemic change in providing programs and supports, so women and gender-diverse people are in a position to access housing, which goes beyond adding more housing units,” says lead author Joanne Heritz, Brock Assistant Professor of Political Science and Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) Research Associate.

The research team will present the brief at the YWCA Niagara Region’s Annual General Meeting, to be held online in the Microsoft Teams platform at Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 6 p.m.

To produce the brief, researchers with Brock’s Niagara Community Observatory partnered with the YWCA Niagara Region to form a Housing Advisory Council consisting of women and gender-diverse people who experienced homelessness, members of organizations who represent people with lived expertise of homelessness, and YWCA officials.

Through focus groups, researchers interviewed residents at the YWCA shelter and women in transitional housing to share their experiences.

From these interviews and other information gathered, the research team identifies five key areas in which women and gender-diverse people face barriers to access and keep housing that meets their needs:

  • Affordability: Rent increasing an estimated 25 per cent from 2021 to 2022 now places minimum-wage earners “in core housing needs;” for instance, a single working parent spends more than half of their minimum wage income on housing.
  • Support systems: More than half of participants reported long waiting lists for community housing and some reported a lack of disability units. Also, income supports such as ODSP and OW tend to penalize people who earn extra income, live with an employed family member or get a minimum-wage job.
  • Trauma: Survivors of partner abuse face low income or inadequate social assistance, dependence on the abusive spouse for financial support, poor credit scores and precarious employment that leads to mental health and self-worth issues. Also, housing in locations with active substance use can be traumatizing for women recovering from addictions.
  • Discrimination: Women who are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, immigrants or were previously in homeless shelters found it especially difficult to get decent housing. “One woman told us about a landlord that wanted to put a bunk bed in a hallway for some newcomers thinking that that’s how they live where they came from,” says Heritz.
  • Safety: Because of high rental costs, the only affordable option is housing in neighbourhoods with high rates of substance use, theft, yelling and violence. Some participants reported feeling unsafe because they must share living spaces with strangers, including bathrooms and kitchens, for affordability.

“The current plan to build over one million homes in Ontario in the next decade does not address the fact that most of the women and gender-diverse people who face intersectional barriers described in this policy brief will not be able to afford to rent or buy these new homes without policies, funding and other resources to enable access,” says the brief.

The brief puts forth recommendations to the federal, provincial and Niagara Region governments, including:

  • Ensure gender-based equity in funding for the National Housing Strategy, with all federal programs prioritizing “those in greatest need, including women and gender-diverse people with disabilities, and Indigenous and Black women.”
  • Raise social assistance rates, disability benefits and minimum wage. Ontario social assistance (OW and ODSP) rates “should follow the federal government’s COVID-19 CERB example of $2,000 per person per month, which comes closer to what is needed to access safe and affordable housing in Niagara today.”
  • Municipalities “must include a gender lens in their Official Plans. This would assist in planning neighbourhoods that are accessible, walkable (to grocery stores, banks), and include child-care centres.”

Research team member and YWCA Executive Director Elisabeth Zimmermann says her organization has “always supported women who are in need of housing,” particularly as Niagara is going through a housing crisis.

“This joint research provides important information that verifies the importance of having an understanding of the housing needs of women and gender-diverse people and needs to be considered in any solutions that are developed,” says Zimmermann. “We are grateful for the report.”

The brief paints a bleak picture of the housing situation for vulnerable residents in Niagara and beyond, including:

  • 14 per cent of the people surveyed in previous Niagara Region research reported experiencing discrimination in housing. Individuals surveyed reported discrimination based on gender (41 per cent), ethnicity (24 per cent), race (18 per cent), disability (23 per cent), sexual orientation (15 per cent) or Indigenous identity (four per cent).
  • The Niagara Region’s centralized housing waitlist grew by 11.5 per cent between 2020 and 2021, increasing to 9,171 households from 8,228.

In Canada, in 2016, 37.4 per cent of young homeless women experienced a sexual assault, compared to 8.2 per cent of young homeless men; 41.3 per cent of trans and gender non-binary homeless youth had experienced sexual assault, and 35.6 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth had experienced a sexual assault, compared to 14.8 per cent of straight homeless youth.

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