Housing as a women's issue

WHOM does the housing crisis affect most directly in this country? The poor. And the majority of the poor are women and children. Many women - feminists, planners, architects, and poor women themselves - find it ironic that men are usually the ones making housing policy. These women think this is one reason for some of the failures.

Housing is ``profoundly a women's issue,'' says Leslie Kanes Weisman, a housing activist who spoke here last fall at a conference on housing options for women, coordinated by the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. Women and children make up the majority of people who live in public housing. The income gap between working men and women means that women cannot compete in the housing market as easily as others can.

It also means that women have to pay a larger percentage of their income for the same housing. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 1986 the average annual wages of women in full-time jobs was 64.3 percent of that of men.

``Income varies according to gender; rent or mortgage payments do not,'' says Ms. Weisman. Women make less money, live longer, and are more frequently single heads of households.

In fact, 34.6 percent of all female single heads of households live in poverty, compared with 11.4 percent of male single heads of households, according to the US Census Bureau. Among people aged 22 to 44, 13.4 percent of all women are at or below poverty level, compared with 8.2 percent of men. At all ages, more women live in poverty than men.

Because of having less economic clout, housing options for women are fewer, Weisman says. They often have to settle for older, more run-down, less safe neighborhoods. If they have children, they sometimes find that landlords discriminate against them. Women in cities usually do not have cars, and are dependent on public transportation. Services in these neighborhoods are often lacking.

For divorced women, the housing crunch may come suddenly. According to Weisman, a woman's income drops 73 percent in the first year after a divorce, while a husband's income goes up an average of 42 percent. Many divorced women have to move into housing that is a great step down from the home they had while married.

For women who live in public housing, the problems are even more severe. People who live in public housing pay up to 40 percent of their rent to live in squalid and unsafe conditions, Weisman says.

``Public housing has failed miserably, because the policy experts don't know how to run public housing,'' she says. ``They have invested money in bricks and mortar and not human development, so there is tremendous apathy and disinterest.'' Women would like to see more emphasis on day care and educational opportunities within housing developments.

Bertha Gilkey sees hope when tenants begin to take control of their own lives through tenant-management programs. Ms. Gilkey, of Urban Women Inc. in St. Louis, has gone to several projects in various cities to teach tenant-management skills, with considerable success.

Weisman says that women should not be viewed merely as the recipients of housing services, but that their experience should be used in developing and operating housing.

For example, some of the participants at the conference on housing options for women showed prototypes of shared housing for older women or single mothers that offer both privacy and common space. Some widows talk of being able to create separate units in their existing homes for single mothers. Many women - both married and single - said the stereotypical standard home being built does not fit their needs.

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