What would Victorian social reformer Octavia Hill make of today’s housing emergency and what can we learn from her approach?
Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day, recognising the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and taking action to accelerate gender equality.
This year’s theme is ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’, recognising 2022 as pivotal for achieving gender equality in the context of climate change and celebrating the women and girls leading the charge to respond.
Worth remembering, then, Octavia Hill, who is widely credited as both the pioneer of social housing in England and one of our first environmental campaigners.
Concerned for the welfare of families living in horrific Victorian slums, Hill saw legislation to improve housing conditions had failed the poorest of the working class. Landlords routinely ignored their obligations, rather like today.
She decided the answer was to manage housing herself. In 1865 she persuaded her friend John Ruskin to invest a £750 inheritance to lease three cottages in Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place), Marylebone, and place them under her management in exchange for a 5% return. This was the start of many pioneering social housing schemes.
Women in housing
Hill believed in personalised housing management, training female staff to make regular rent collections in order to talk to tenants and quickly support them with any problems. When I started my housing career in London’s King’s Cross area in the early 1990s, this personal ethos of home visits persisted, with rent collections in leather satchels having only just been phased out. It helped spot problems early to prevent homelessness.
Hill’s centring of women in the management of housing was formalised in the Society of Women Housing Workers in 1916. This later became the Society of Women Housing Estate Managers, which insisted on thorough training and professional status, resisting attempts to relegate women to the ‘social work’ side while men were given the important positions. As more men entered the profession, a 1965 merger with a men’s institute resulted in the Chartered Institute of Housing, whose current President Jo Richardson campaigns to end homelessness.
Clean air; green space
Hill knew that healthy homes don’t end at decent buildings and well-supported tenants. She passionately believed that the health and happiness of urban communities depended on access to clean air and green space: “places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in”.
She campaigned for the use of smokeless fuel in London and for open spaces to be kept for public use, saving Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields for the benefit of Londoners. She went on to establish the National Trust in 1895.
Gender-biased housing policy today
So, what would this Victorian social reformer make of today’s housing emergency and what can we learn from her approach?
While there were street homeless women in the late 1800s (including most victims of serial killer ‘Jack the Ripper’), they were often ‘rendered invisible’ because of the method of ‘counting bodies’ in only recognised homeless facilities.
This remains an issue today. Recent statistics reveal only 13% of the 2,440 people recorded as sleeping rough in England last autumn were women. But this is likely an underestimate, because the added dangers of gender-based violence and harassment mean women remain desperate to avoid bedding down on the streets at night. Instead they sleep on kitchen floors, sit in stations and even suffer sexual exploitation just to get off the street. .
Government ‘no recourse to public funds’ conditions, which exclude certain migrants from homelessness support, cause destitution among women. 62% of people applying to have the condition lifted due to destitution were female, and disproportionately women of colour.
This can’t be ignored. Street homelessness can half a woman’s lifespan: the average age of death for homeless women is 42 years, a shocking 40 years younger than average female life expectancy. If lives are to be saved, homeless women need a return to Hill’s personalised approach of services tailored to their needs.
Homeless lone mothers
Having been brought up largely by a lone mother, Hill would likely be shocked that one in 39 lone mothers in England are now homeless and living in temporary accommodation with their children. This includes women who’ve fled domestic abuse, then found themselves caught by the gender-biased benefit cap., Six in ten households hit by the benefit cap are lone parents, disproportionate numbers of whom appear to be Black and Asian.
Our work with Women’s Aid shows that women seeking to escape abusive relationships hit the barrier of the cap. This deducts housing benefit for those not earning over £617 per month – not easy having just fled with traumatised children. The cap serves to undermine Government efforts to tackle domestic abuse, which rose during lockdowns.
Temporary accommodation (hidden from public scrutiny) is notoriously insecure., Mothers can be expected to move to another area at a few days’ notice, pay extortionate amounts for often poor conditions and, increasingly, live in one room or a shipping container with their children (accommodation that’s classified as ‘self-contained’ because they don’t have to share a hostel toilet with strangers).
Women’s struggle with housing costs
Homelessness is caused by affordability, not personal problems. If we’re to prevent women becoming homeless, especially those caring for dependent children, we must acknowledge the gender-biased impacts of cuts and freezes to housing benefit. This benefit should provide women with a safety net.
Financial inequality means women responsible for housing costs are 36% more likely than men to be in arrears or constantly struggling to afford to pay. It’s little wonder that 69% of women in private rentals worry they wouldn’t be able to afford anywhere decent to live if their relationship broke down.
Lack of social housing management
And finally, what would Hill make of the decline of personalised social housing management? Tenants are left to deal with a faceless bureaucracy, rather than a friendly face at the door, at its worst extreme resulting in their complaints about fire safety and other appalling conditions in their neglectfully mismanaged blocks being ignored. Or schemes where poorer children can be barred from accessing green play space.
Fight for women – fight for home
In honour of Octavia Hill – and all the many women housing campaigners who’ve followed in her footsteps – we must recognise that the fight to tackle both gender equality and climate change begins at home. Don’t ignore women who are homeless or in bad housing just because you can’t see them. Join our movement to fight for a new generation of decent, well-managed and environment-friendly social housing.