A 25-unit affordable housing complex in Lakeside, NS called The Sunflower that will provide housing for women, families, and gender-expansive people is almost complete. But women and gender-diverse people, who are vulnerable in a housing crisis, need more to keep them from facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Cheryl MacIsaac is a program coordinator with Adsum for Women and Children, which will manage The Sunflower. She said many women and gender-diverse people are invisibly homeless.  

“Often women are couch surfing, staying with family or friends, or maybe staying with a partner only in order to obtain shelter,” MacIsaac said. “And often they’re living in households where they are vulnerable or subject to family conflict or violence or maybe they’re staying somewhere that’s not fit for habitation.” 

“Sometimes that’s because they’re more often single parents than men are and they’re worried about having their children apprehended.”

A street of homes under construction
Construction of The Sunflower. Photo: Adsum for Women and Children

MacIsaac said the issues are getting worse by “a million percent” for everybody. So women and gender-diverse Nova Scotians who were invisibly homeless before are finding themselves more in the open as couch-surfing or other arrangements came to an end. MacIsaac said Adsum saw more people they had never worked with before, including seniors who are homeless for the first time, people who lost a spouse, were renovicted, became ill, and people who lost their jobs. 

“People had nothing and no one,” MacIsaac said. “That in combination with the vacancy rate of 1% or less and increasing costs of housing has just tipped the scales for a lot of people and families.”

“We’ve also seen people during COVID who were able to access the CRB (Canada Recovery Benefit) for a while when they initially lost employment, but there was a gap when they were leaving to get back onto income assistance.”

A woman with shoulder length wavy hair and wearing a black sweater sits at a table with her hand under her chin.
Cheryl MacIsaac, program coordinator at Adsum for Women and Children. Photo: Adsum

Men and women experience homelessness differently and for different reasons. For example, women are most often single parents or leading a family. Women make less money and are more often unpaid caregivers to parents or children. When women don’t have access to child care, they have to schedule work shifts around child care they can find. 

“You are helping to pay rent with the Child Tax Benefit. If your children are removed from your care, then you lose your housing because you lose the benefit that was also helping to pay your rent,” MacIsaac said. “Then you’re dealing with the trauma of losing your children and become homeless in the process, so there are layers of trauma all at once.”

“If women are finding work, that work is often not well paid.”

Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour also experience racism when searching for housing. 

“The more marginalized you are, the more likely you are to be homeless,” MacIsaac said. “Women who are Indigenous, African Nova Scotia, or racialized are a lot more likely to have involvement with child protection or other systems like collections because of the racism in the systems, so they are more vulnerable to the poverty and homelessness that results from those things.”

“The systems themselves are designed to keep people poor in many ways. The better you are at conforming to middle-class white values the more the system will be of service to you. The more you deviate from those expectations, the more challenging the systems become for you.” 

Key factors

Brenda Parker is an urban planner, geographer, and associate professor and associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Illinois’ College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. Her research over the last 20 years has focused on gender, race, and inequalities in cities, and she’s seen the issues MacIsaac talked about at play for years.

Parker and colleague Catherine Leviten-Reid, an associate professor, Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University, researched and wrote a report, “Pandemic precarity and everyday disparity: gendered housing needs in North America,” that identifies several factors that makes women and gender diverse people more vulnerable when it comes to finding affordable housing.

“We were just calling attention to something that’s invisible that has been a kind of everyday disparities, these persistent inequalities,” Parker said in an interview with the Examiner. “And then as the pandemic happened, we could see those were really amplified by the pandemic.” 

In their research, Parker and Leviten-Reid found that caregiving responsibilities, lower wages and less wealth, gender-based violence, mental health and well being, and finally, a lack of representation in governance and leadership are all reasons women and gender-diverse people struggle more often with housing. Each factor can mean a woman struggles to find housing, but many of the factors work together to make that struggle even tougher.

When it comes to caregiving, Parker said it’s not just caring for children that’s an issue for women. They’re often also caring for aging parents or siblings or doing community care. For example, a neighbour has a baby and they’re helping out or they’re doing caregiving via volunteer work. In their report, Parker and Leviten-Reid called this the “triple burdens of care: unpaid, paid, and community labour.”

“Women in particular hold up those communities a little bit more,” Parker said. “Women make decisions about jobs based on caregiving responsibilities. That means they’re often burning the candle at both ends. It means they often need bigger spaces because they’re doing care giving or they have to stay in a particular space because their parents are there.” 

Parker points out that caregivers are more stressed over time and have more mental health issues. That was particularly true during the pandemic when women were often taking on caregiving at home and online school. And infrastructure for caregiving can be thin. There are fewer child care options and no respite for women taking care of parents. 

Gender-based violence is a key issue for women when it comes to housing. Women may not leave an abusive partner because they won’t have housing. Transition houses may not have the space or may not offer culturally sensitive services. If women do leave, Parker said they can end up in precarious situations, they face violence from landlords, or they end up homeless. 

Women also make less money and have less wealth. Parker said that’s especially true for racialized and Indigenous women, even if they are full-time earners. Women also experience gaps in employment, including from leaving a job for maternity leave, but also leaving jobs because of discrimination or harassment. Over time, those gaps translate to less wealth. 

“There’s an obvious link to housing,” Parker said. “If you have less money, you can afford less. You need more space, you’re balancing precarious work with precarious housing, for low-income women, in particular.”   

As they found in their research, women are also more likely to have mental health issues, more likely to have PTSD, and more likely to have anxiety and stress. Transgender women and non-binary people have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

“All these factors can compound each other, depending on the specific situation,” Parker said.  

Gender shaping housing policy

Having more women in politics can help when creating housing that works for women, racialized women, and gender-diverse people.

“The data does show that women are more likely to care about housing and caregiving, and they’re more likely to have life experiences that make them want to invest in these kinds of issues,” Parker said.  

There are other ways women can be involved in the design of housing and shaping housing policy, though. Parker is now working on research around cooperatives, women-led housing, and how women not in any political role can be involved in the design not only of housing itself, but housing policy. She said there are already examples across the world on how woman and gender has shaped housing policies.

Vienna, Austria has been using “gender mainstreaming” since the early 1990s, including in its urban planning. In that city now before a project even starts, urban planners gather and look at data on how different people use public space. In 1993, one project called Frauen-Werk-Stadt or Women-Work-City had planners create an apartment complex that would work for the needs of women. Data from that time period showed that women spent more time per day on household chores and childcare than men — not much has changed — but the apartment complex included lots of courtyard space so families could spend time outside. Planners also added an on-site kindergarten, a pharmacy, and a doctor’s office. And the building was close to public transit.

In North London, a group of women over the age of 50 created their own community and live in new, purpose-built block of flats organized under the name New Ground Cohousing. Their website includes details not only about their cohousing community, but how other women can get together to build cohousing in their own communities.

In California, a group called Moms 4 Housing in Oakland occupied vacant housing in that city and now advocate for housing as a human right. That group is helping to shape policy in Oakland, including proposed legislation, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would require property owners to give tenants the first chance to buy a building if it’s listed for sale.

In 2017 in San Francisco, three Black trans women started The Transgender District. The district’s goal, as stated on its website, is to create an “urban environment that celebrates the transgender tipping point in the United States and the world, while educating the world of the deep profundity of transgender culture and our contributions to the liberation of humankind.”

Women Transforming Cities is a Vancouver-based a grassroots community of intersectional feminists who work with equity-deserving genders, including women, girls, trans, genderqueer, non-binary, Two-Spirit, LGBTQIA++ and allies to help shape municipal policies that affect all those groups. WTC has a Hot Pink Paper Campaign they use to start discussion and debate about gendered issues, including housing, before municipal elections.

“Having more diverse voices in what you want and helping to influence design, having leadership roles at that scale,” Parker said. “That’s something that’s very important.” 

And while these are more organized efforts by women and gender diverse people, other women and groups still organize in more informal ways in their communities to support each other in their housing needs. Senior women find roommates after a spouse dies so they don’t have to move. Grandmothers bring in family members into their homes, and so on.

“In any community you’re finding people who are coming together around these issues,” Parker said. “These informal leaders are taking initiative at multiple scales, and it may or may not be visible.” 

‘A feminist city is good for everyone’

So, how do we create affordable housing in Nova Scotia for women and gender diverse people? MacIsaac at Adsum said an immediate solution is more money.

“We cannot rely on the private sector to create affordable options for people,” MacIsaac said. “People need more money. Give them more money. Give individual people more money, but also free up money for those of us who are doing the work to have more access.”  

As an example, MacIsaac said The Sunflower could have included more housing for more people, if more money was made available.

A tradeswoman in a green hard hat, red and grey t-shirt and jeans inspects the white cupboards inside a home under construction.
The interior of a home at The Sunflower. Photo: Adsum for Women and Children

That’s just for the short term, though. MacIsaac added everyone must be looking at the deeper issues of misogyny and racism and call those out as we see them. 

“That kind of work has to be happening all the time,” MacIsaac said. “Women and gender diverse folks face the stigma and injustice differently and more often than others do.” 

And she said we need to be thinking longer term and be proactive about providing housing before a crisis happens.

“We need to be thinking about what is going to happen this fall,” MacIsaac said. “Last August mass tent evictions were so dehumanizing. (There were) many, many meetings, changes took forever to happen.”  

“It’s June now and October is coming again, as it does every year, and people need to be thinking in advance. A lot of this is this immediate ‘what are we going to do about today?’ when we know. It happens every year.” 

MacIsaac said there needs to be greater awareness around the issue of gender and housing, more empathy, and more champions in government who say housing is a human right.

“There’s been no one person who’s built a career or gone out on a limb to make that happen,” MacIsaac said. “Housing is a human right. It’s all our collective responsibility and people are suffering. Situations are more dire.

True affordable housing is the answer. Everything else is a band-aid solution.” 

Parker said just listening to women and gender diverse people and getting their opinions through focus groups, surveys, and interviews is a good place to start on addressing the issue. Then spend the money to put those ideas into place and designing house and cities around those ideas because they will benefit everyone.

“What I try to tell people is that a feminist city is good for everyone,” Parker said. “If you have better mobility for people with strollers, then you have better mobility for people who use wheelchairs. If you have affordable housing for care givers, for the elderly, then that’s good for everybody. If you have better mental health services and wraparound services, then that’s good for everybody.” 

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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