A lack of social housing is putting women's lives at risk, say advocates

A lack of social housing combined with skyrocketing rents in Montreal is putting vulnerable women's lives in danger, according to advocates.

A collection of women’s advocacy groups are calling for funding of 50,000 new social housing units in Quebec in the next provincial budget, scheduled to be released next week.

At a meeting on Sunday, several advocates said the province has lagged considerably when it comes to building new units, which they said can provide solutions for women in life and death situations.

“Women living in shelters have a hard time finding an apartment when they go on the private sector. Most of the time the apartments are too small or cost too much for them,” said Regroupements des maisons femmes victimes de violence conjugal spokesperson Louise Riendeau. “Most of those women live on welfare benefits. For some of them the choice is between an apartment that’s too small, too expensive or to go back to the abusive partner.”

It’s not just potential spousal violence that leaves women vulnerable, said L’R des centres de femmes du Quebec communications director Valerie Gilker-Letourneau.

“When we think of women as a social group we can see there’s a pay gap of about $16,000 per year on average in Quebec,” she said. “When we look at specific groups within women such as immigrants, racialized women, women with disabilities, it’s way harder for them to access housing because they are generally poorer. When you look at women with kids, it’s even harder.”

Sandrine Belley criticized the provincial government, saying it has spent the past decade ignoring the social housing shortage. The situation is especially dire in Montreal, where historically low vacancy rates have sent rents skyrocketing.

“The situation is really critical,” said Belley. “There are not enough apartments for everybody. In that situation, the people who are most precarious will be the most discriminated against. Women are often discriminated against because they have children. Some women are discriminated against because they are racialized or Natives. There is also a lot of discrimination against women who are handicapped because they can’t even visit the apartment. (Because of this) women will stay in situations that are dangerous for them.”

The group also called for changes to Quebec’s rent laws, saying the government should enact universal rent control. Belley said the change would take the onus for contesting rent increases away from tenants and involve the government in making sure increases are being applied fairly.

“Right now the landlord sends you a letter for a rent increase and you can refuse it but a lot of tenants don’t know you can refuse or are scared to do so because the landlord is harassing them,” she said. “I’ve seen some tenants refuse and then the landlord doesn’t do repairs anymore or sends an eviction notice. It really puts tenants, especially women who are more vulnerable, in precarious conditions when you have to refuse your rent increase.”