The effects of the housing crisis are vast and varied. Right now, there aren’t enough affordable homes (leaving millions of people living in often unsuitable and unsafe conditions) and the houses that are available often come with extortionate living costs, meaning a third of millennials are unlikely to ever own their own home.
Women, in particular, are hit hard by the crisis, suffering the consequences of a gender housing gap. Not only are they less likely to be able to afford rooms of their own (nowhere in the UK has affordable housing for women to rent right now, according to the Women’s Budget Group), but the way in which domestic violence and abuse intersects with the housing crisis means that it is putting many women’s lives at risk.
Housing is one of many reasons why women can’t "just leave" an abusive relationship. Rent costs combined with a dwindling supply of social housing has created a perfect storm for women being forced to remain with a perpetrator, according to upcoming research by Shelter.
If victims, especially those with children, are living in a council home that they fear losing, for instance, they may feel they have little choice but to stay put. Those who flee risk homelessness – putting themselves in danger of further abuse and exploitation – because of the shrinking number of refuges for domestic violence and abuse victims and survivors (one in five women are being turned away because of a lack of spaces). Research by Crisis in 2014 found that 61% of homeless women and 13% of homeless men had experienced violence and/or abuse from a partner.
The charity is working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness and calling for the government to prioritise people who are homeless because of domestic abuse, guaranteeing them a safe and settled home. At present, nearly 2,000 domestic abuse survivors in England are put at risk of homelessness a year.
Domestic abuse also worsens the impact of existing welfare reforms, including the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and the local housing allowance freeze, which disproportionately affect women and children, Shelter says. Then there’s the fact that housing benefit doesn’t cover the average rent costs, the difficulty of getting out of tenancy agreements and the impossibility of taking charge of your money and upping sticks when an abuser has ruined your financial records.
When Sophia*, 39, was being sexually, emotionally, psychologically and financially abused by her ex-husband, she was living in a house in East Anglia, for which she was solely responsible for paying the mortgage. During their seven-year marriage, he also abused their children physically, emotionally and psychologically until 2017, when he was arrested. The economic and emotional abuse, including stalking and harassment, continued after the relationship ended and he was arrested.
Sophia’s housing situation made it difficult to escape. Her responsibility for the mortgage, coupled with her lack of financial independence, left her trapped with her three children in constant danger and dread. Ahead, she shares her story.
The years of abuse broke me. I felt worthless, I didn't feel like a person, I was just a part of him. I considered suicide as the only escape until I was referred to a domestic abuse organisation for support. I’m still on antidepressants and have had regular counselling for the last two years. Physically, I still operate in fight or flight mode, meaning I’m constantly on edge and my body doesn’t cope well with adrenaline and stress. Financially, I feel stuck. My credit rating is very poor because of huge debts my ex-husband left in my name.
He refused to work, so I worked while he controlled all the money. My personal financial situation was strong before I met him, but he constantly increased overdrafts, opened new bank accounts, destroyed my debit cards, opened credit cards and mobile phone contracts, and applied for loans in my name. By the time our relationship ended, there were four credit cards with a total balance of £10,000, two loans with a balance of £15,000 and two current accounts overdrawn by £2,000. He also took £5,000 from our children's bank accounts and racked up £700 in water charges in the space of six weeks while the children and I were away from the house, and in excess of £3,000 gas and electric in less than a year, while I was working.
It was my house and because I had no money and three children, I had nowhere to go. I couldn't afford to run to another property. I was constantly scared he would trash the house or burn it down. I knew he wouldn't leave. Rent was more than any mortgage and I couldn't get another mortgage due to my poor credit rating. I was stuck. Social housing wasn’t an option because I owned my property. At the time, I didn't think refuge was an option either because I didn't fully understand how abusive he was being.
The final straw came when he knocked our son’s tooth out with a door and he needed hospital treatment. I called the non-emergency police when he was out of the house and they said they wanted to visit, but I was convinced my abuser had intercepted the call and that he was going to turn up and kill us all. The police came and we were escorted out of the house at 2am and told we could either go to the local police station for the night for safety or go to live with family. I chose the latter.
The police arrested my husband two days later for child cruelty and we were told we weren't allowed back to the house. We ended up spending six weeks with my family until a non-molestation and occupation order could be served on my husband. We had a police escort home and a marker placed on the house. He visited and broke the order several times, but it could never be proven.
My options were to enter a refuge or get my house back. I opted for getting the house back, as it was mine and the only place my children and I had ever known. I got up every day, even though some days felt impossible, and carried on working. The children were back in school after two days off. I drove 100 miles each day to get them to and from school. This normality kept us all alive.
I needed my family’s support to function, so I’d hoped to move closer to them, but I was told that if I sold my property I’d be making myself homeless and therefore wouldn’t be entitled to support from the council. An ideal situation would have been a pause on the mortgage and for my bank and utility providers to have understood economic and domestic abuse. Like council tax relief if a property is empty, for example, if you’ve had to escape your house for domestic abuse, a relief on these outgoings would have been welcomed.
Housing is a safe way out for domestic abuse survivors. It’s a future. It’s an escape. It’s a plan. It’s the ability to start over. Knowing now how unsafe, scary, draining and financially crippling leaving can be, a safe roof over your head is crucial. It gives you something to build from. I was more concerned about my children. I knew I couldn't leave them in the house with the abuser, their father, but I couldn't leave them with nowhere to sleep, eat, wash, etc.
The children and I are stronger and happier now. We all have tough times, triggers and bad nightmares, but we’re learning they’re in the past. We’re safe and together. I feel vulnerable because of the abuse I’ve experienced since we left, including stalking, harassment, fraud and considerable economic abuse around divorce, child maintenance and debt. I feel strong and vulnerable in equal measure.
For more information about economic abuse, visit Surviving Economic Abuse’s website. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.