Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence

  Left In the Cold: Women, Health and The Demise of Social Housing Policies


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The research and publication of this study were funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE). The PWHCE is financially supported by the Centre of Excellence for Women's Health Program, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the PWHCE or the official policy of Health Canada.

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D. Rude, K. Thompson


As an appreciation for the significance of housing on health status has broadened over recent years (in a shift to population health and preventative health models), access to adequate housing for low income Canadians has nevertheless narrowed.

In the early 1990's federal and provincialdebt reduction strategies resulted in decreases in social program expenditures, and the federal government began systematically withdrawing from social housing responsibilities. Canada's total housing stock is approximately 660,000 units. One third of that amount is public housing, meaning it is directly or indirectly administered by some level of government. The government stock of public housing, is around 200,000 units, of these 164,000 were built before 1978. Very few new public housing initiatives have been built since the late 1970s; those that have been developed have been specifically for seniors and special needs groups (Geller, 2000; Wolfe, 1998).


The gap left by the federal government's withdrawal from housing has not been filled by others. The ability to pay has become a central factor in determining housing status, putting women at double disadvantage because they already have lower incomes than men do.

This report is designed to draw links between housing policies and women's health. Typically, housing research differentiates between different income levels (i.e. low-income and poverty measurements) but neglects to analyze the effect of gender on accessing and maintaining adequate housing. This report seeks to make connections between gender, housing and health by developing an explanatory theoretical model that is grounded in the experiences of women who have lived in and who are living in substandard housing.

While it is clear that women are, as a group, likely to face affordability and accessibility problems in housing and shelter, there is a lack of research on why this is and what consequences of recent changes in housing policies have on women's health. Answers to questions such s these will be strengthened through research that documents women's housing situations and how it has affected their well being.

The first part of the report provides a review of the literature available which examines the links between housing, health and gender, as well as an overview of housing policy and practice changes in Canada over the last decade.

The second part of the report examines the gender-related issues of housing and health in the cities of Regina, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The relationships among gender, health, income, education, employment and family history are explored in the context of the housing situations of women who have lived in social housing and also women who have rented low-cost housing in the private housing market. The authors interviewed thirteen women who were reached through community organizations that provide services to women (e.g. the YWCA, community health clinics). The women had first-hand experiences of difficulties in accessing or maintaining adequate housing.


In addition, the perspectives of eight professionals are included. They work in housing policy and social planning for government (provincially or municipally) or provide front-line services through a government-funded agency (such as the Health District). Others in the professional group are front-line service providers working with non-government or charitable organizations.

Broadly, the research was designed to address four main questions relative to women's health and housing.

    What are the changes to policy?

    How does sub-standard housing affect the lives and health of women?

    What action needs to occur to address women's housing issues?

    How can women, women's concerns and gender issues be included in the development of housing policy?

Key Findings

Among the findings from this research, certain key points arose:

  • All the participants have lived in or are currently living in unaffordable, unsuitable or sub-standard housing.
  • Gender is a variable that appears to be significant in increasing a person's risk of living in unsuitable housing. Changes in housing policies and programs over recent years have specific gender effects, particularly for women with children. They report particular difficulties in affording and getting into suitable housing.
  • The majority of the women interviewed have been struggling with housing issues for numerous years and have been displaced multiple times from various residences The effects of having to move again and again are substantial. The women's children were affected both psychologically and educationally by constant re-locations and having to change schools and make new friends.
  • Women living in sub-standard and unsafe housing report high levels of stress due to conditions within their homes as well as danger and difficulties with neighbours and in their neighbourhoods
  • Substandard housing conditions included plumbing and heating problems, infestations of rodents and insects, air-quality problems, and various safety issues which participants felt affected their health and the health of their children.
  • Women with pre-existing health problems (disabilities or a major illness, for example) report that living in substandard housing worsens their health, particularly when their home does not meet their basic health needs.
  • Most of the women reported feeling harassed including sexually harassed or mistreated by their landlords both as tenants and as women.
  • The current housing system is insensitive to gender-specific housing issues, and there are not adequate processes and mechanisms for women to harassment or abuse by landlords.

Key Recommendations

Key recommendations fall into two categories:

  1. health and housing issues; and
  2. gender-specific process issues.

The main recommendations are:

  • Address the shortage of adequate and affordable housing for women, particularly women raising young children.
  • Ensure basic health and safety rules and regulations are followed in all areas of rental housing, especially in the private housing market.
  • Provide support to landlords and tenants to ensure heating systems and insulation are suitable so that, in light of high energy costs, women and their children are not living without appropriate heat in the cold of winter.
  • Respond to the needs of women with serious health problems and disabilities so that they are living in homes that suit and accommodate their basic health
  • needs.

On gender-specific housing issues, the recommendations are:

  • Support the establishment of stable, longer-term low-cost housing for women and their children to reduce multiple displacements. Solutions must adopt a grassroots approach that includes extensive consultations with women. Policy approaches must meaningfully include the women who are affected.
  • Housing policies must recognize that women have particular challenges in the housing market - especially in accessing and sustaining decent housing - and often require additional support in finding and financing suitable housing.
  • Support, and training for home maintenance should be available to women without the tools and/or training to do routine home maintenance and repair. This is particularly important for women who are in a home-ownership program and who find themselves responsible for maintaining a home without adequate skills, tools or finances for household repairs.
  • Facilitate communications and relations between private sector landlords and female tenants to reduce harassment and ensure health and safety issues are addressed in a timely fashion. This role would be best fulfilled through a nongovernment organization. An organizaiton at arms-length from the government could also provide a mechanism for advocacy in more extreme and complex situations.
  • Provide training in gender-based analysis to housing professionals and policy makers to ensure policies and practices are gender sensitive.

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