Gender and Housing – An Overview of Data Issues

*This ERA article was included in the May Issue of Parity on Revisiting Homelessness Data* 

Gender relevant and responsive housing and homelessness data has long been a source of consternation and discussion for researchers, policy-makers and advocates.

The available data on homelessness services, housing stress and housing assistance goes some way to uncovering women’s housing issues, however a complete picture of the gendered contours of housing and homelessness remains elusive. A gender-responisve approach to housing policy relies heavily on this complete picture. Sex and gender disaggregation is a starting point but measures and indicators must also be responsive and inclusive of gendered experiences.

Below is an overview of just some of the gender and housing data issues I’ve encountered in women’s housing advocacy.

Homelessness Data

The expanded definition of homelessness in the ABS Census of Population and Housing based on homelessness, rather than houselessness, goes some way to addressing the way that homelessness definitions can hide and make invisible women’s experiences of homelessness. These changes to the way we count homelessness contribute, as Petersen and Parsell note, “to a comprehensive understanding of housing exclusion as it effects (older) women.”[1]

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Specialist Homelessness Services dataset captures crucial information on who is seeking homelessness service assistance, what types of services and for what reasons. The annual publication of this data and the detail it elaborates is a valuable resource for understanding and responding to women’s homelessness. In a climate where homelessness services are reporting being unable to meet demand,[2] data are inevitably limited to counting those who are able to access services. This is particularly relevant for population groups who face multiple barriers to accessing appropriate services that respond to specific experiences. The women who are not counted in this data reflects the service gaps that exist for women experiencing multiple and intersecting marginalisations.[3]

Household Measurements

Sex and gender disaggregation is made difficult by enumeration of data by household. The national data on the public housing waiting lists is a case in point. With almost 200 000 households waiting for public housing,[4] the data do not reveal the proportion of applicants by gender. Women are the majority of adult public housing tenants[5] and so the absence of  gender data in waiting lists leaves a big gap in our knowledge on women’s housing situations and needs. Where data are enumerated by household, the only limited pathways to gender or sex disaggregated data are through single households.  For example, we encounter this issue with data on the gender wealth gap (relevant for housing careers) where “studies of the gender wealth gap are confined to comparisons between single female and single male households, as Australian data collections do not permit analysis of the gender wealth gap among partnered men and women.”[6]

Household-based data doesn’t just limit the possibility of disaggregation, but obscures or makes invisible the intra-household gendered relations that impact on women’s housing experiences.[7] As a result, despite the evidence,[8] there is very little data on the experiences of women who are living and remaining in violent relationships because of the affordable housing shortage. This invisibility underlines the importance of measures which centre the experiences of individuals within households, such as the Individual Deprivation Measure.[9]

Housing Wellbeing

Scratching beneath the surface of household measurements and looking at the experiences of individuals within a household forces us to think about what it is we measuring with housing stress. Definitions of housing stress based around the 30% rule “focus solely on the financial burden faced through direct consumption” and can be a blunt instrument overriding fundamental questions about housing need and wellbeing.[10]

In this light, there is no measurement and corresponding data that captures access to appropriate housing. An appropriate housing measure would look at quality (design, accessibility), size and location, in addition to affordability.[11] Looking at the gendered dimensions, unequal distribution of caring responsibilities and increased vulnerability to domestic and family violence are just two factors that shape the housing needs of women. An integration of the gender perspective would see housing data that articulate and capture the fulfilment of housing needs across genders.

In 2013, ERA conducted a social media survey targeted at women called the Housing Stressometer. The survey was not scientifically rigorous but allowed for an informal snapshot of women’s experiences of housing wellbeing. The Housing Stressometer began with a question on housing costs as a proportion of income (to ascertain housing stress) and was followed by 13 questions on housing wellbeing which covered safety, state of repair, accessibility, size, security and so on. Eighty-four per cent of survey respondents were women and of these, 20% were paying less than 30% of their income on housing costs but had identified 2 or more issues with their housing wellbeing. This snapshot underlines the need for a housing data which goes beyond cost.

Sex and gender disaggregation is a starting point, but ultimately a greater consideration and illumination of gendered experiences and perspectives should be integrated throughout data processes.

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[1] Petersen, M., Parsell, C. (2014). Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness in Australia. Institute for Social Science Research Report for The Mercy Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.mercyfoundation.com.au/_uploads/_cknw/files/FINAL%20Feb%202014%20Petersen%20%20Parsell%20Older%20women’s%20pathways%20out%20of%20homelessness.pdf

[2] Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Australian Community Sector Survey. Retrieved from: http://acoss.wpengine.com/images/uploads/ACSS2014_final.pdf

[3] See, for example, the multiple barriers that exist for women with disability in accessing domestic and family violence services in People with Disability and Domestic Violence NSW. (2015) Women with Disability and Domestic and Family Violence: A Guide for Policy and Practice. Retrieved from: http://dvnsw.org.au/pwd_doc1.pdf  

[4] Productivity Commission (2017) Report on Government Services: Volume G Housing and Homelessness. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2017/housing-and-homelessness

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare(2016) Housing Assistance in Australia 2016 Web Report – Social Housing Tenants. Australian Government. Retrieved: http://www.aihw.gov.au/housing-assistance/haa/2016/

[6]  Senate Economics References Committee (2016) A Husband is Not a Retirement Plan’ – Achieving economic security for women in retirement. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Economics/Economic_security_for_women_in_retirement/Report

[7] https://www.wien.gv.at/statistik/pdf/genderstatistics-english.pdf

[8] Wendt, S. (2015) How housing affordability hurts women and kids fleeing violence. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/how-housing-affordability-hurts-women-and-kids-fleeing-violence-40306

[9] International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA). (2015) Introducing the Individual Deprivation Measure – A new way of measuring poverty. Retrieved from: https://www.iwda.org.au/introducing-the-individual-deprivation-measure/

[10] Rowley, S, and Ong, R. (2012) Housing affordability, housing stress and household wellbeing in Australia. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI). Retrieved from: https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/192

[11] Baker, E, Lester, L, Beer, A, Bunce, D. (2012) Household Responses to Declining Affordability. National Housing Supply Council. Retrieved from: http://www.treasury.gov.au/PublicationsAndMedia/Publications/2012/Households-responses-to-declining-housing-affordability

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