As affordability crisis worsens, let’s make sure women are included in housing solutions

It is critically important that we do more to address women’s housing needs here and now, writes guest columnist Alexandra Monajr.

May 19, 2021 4:04 am
A house for sale in the North End of Boise.

A house for sale in the North End of Boise on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The choice of staying in a home that isn’t safe or braving the streets is one that no one should have to make, but it is one that women in our community face daily.

This is one reason I believe that we need to encourage the diversity of housing and increase the number of homes built in our existing neighborhoods. And while we do that, we need to be tuned into the needs of those who most deeply feel the effects of high housing costs.

CATCH’s annual report tells the story of a woman named Cassidy who was new to Idaho with limited connections, but was just a regular person with a job and a home. Then an abusive relationship led to the loss of her job and home. She ended up living in her car for over a year. Thankfully, her story ends well — with some assistance from CATCH, she is now stably housed and thriving.

Reading Cassidy’s story, I realized that while I haven’t personally known anyone who has experienced homelessness, there are women in my life who have in the midst of challenging times found themselves on the cusp of being without shelter.

One, a teen whose mother kicked her out of her house because she got pregnant. Another, a young woman whose romantic partner became abusive after they moved to another state where she, like Cassidy, had no friends, coworkers, or trusted places to go for help. And, a stay at home mother with limited professional experience whose partner and financial provider for the family left.

These women had networks of friends and family who were able to provide support in their time of need. I can’t help but wonder how their stories may have been different if they didn’t have immediate support and found themselves in a place where housing costs were rapidly outpacing wages and vacancy rates hovered near 2%.

Creating an abundance and variety of attainable homes in places where people can access their daily needs is one way to ensure that more women have the ability to obtain and keep safe homes for themselves and their families.

It also builds stronger communities where people with diverse backgrounds, ages, and incomes have daily interactions with each other, increasing the likelihood that someone has a support network in times of crisis. It is critically important that we do more to address women’s housing needs here and now. 

The challenge of rapidly rising housing costs and stagnant wages in the Treasure Valley isn’t new, and the pandemic has accelerated and increased the impact of these trends.

The Treasure Valley also has seen an increase in families experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, and requests for fair housing assistance. Like we’ve seen nationally, women (especially mothers) have more acutely experienced the negative economic impacts of the pandemic in our community.

Add to these factors additional barriers such as lending discrimination or predation, a higher liklihood of being a renter, and higher rates of eviction that women (mothers) — particularly Black women (mothers) — already faced when it comes to housing security, and you can see how a tight housing market can get even tighter depending on who you are.

The United for ALICE Research Center provides some insight into the gender distribution of single-parent families at or below the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) Threshold in Idaho. People described as ‘ALICE’ could also be called essential workers — child care providers, supermarket employees, servers and cooks, home health aides, and office clerks.

One of the greatest threats to ALICE in our community is housing insecurity. Data from 2018 shows that in Idaho families headed by a single parent are more likely to have incomes below the ALICE Threshold, and that likelihood increases for female-headed families. In the Treasure Valley (Ada, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, and Owyhee counties), 71% of 15,870 female-headed households had incomes below the ALICE Threshold compared to 54% of 5,265 male-headed households.

In urbanist and feminist circles, there is growing recognition that systems influencing our built environment, including the availability, access, and quality of housing, are not race-, ability- or gender-neutral, and this is one example. If you don’t think about the intersection of equity, land use, and urban planning frequently, you probably haven’t thought much-or at all-about housing affordability and homelessness in these terms.

And you might be wondering why identity matters. 

Whether or not you call yourself a feminist, we can agree that our identities influence our experiences and perspectives. As we collectively grapple with the housing challenges of our community, for solutions to be fair and enduring, we need to understand the needs and perspectives of those who are affected the most by this crisis. In this case, it’s women.

It’s no secret that developers, architects, legislators, and the majority of people who testify at public meetings are male, white, and I’m going to wager a guess that most own land. Being male, white, and wealthy is not bad, nor does it mean your/their contributions aren’t needed. But it does mean that the people who have the most power in designing our cities, responding to the need for housing development, shaping land use policy, and influencing public decision making may lack the experiential diversity of perspective that this challenge demands. 

As a community, we need to make sure the voices of women and mothers — especially women and mothers who are not white — and all people in the minority are prioritized in identifying solutions.

Let’s take a harder look at how we can measure disparities in local housing security and civic participation, and let’s make plans to track our progress toward equity. And if you consider yourself a feminist or an ally, think about how you can support the availability and creation of affordable housing in your neighborhood.

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Alexandra Monjar
Alexandra Monjar

Alexandra Monjar started her career in arts management. After getting interested in architecture and urbanism, she realized that how we shape the built environment can address local and global issues, strengthen our ties and trust with each other, and bring us more happiness. After moving to Boise with her husband in 2014, she shifted her career path and has found her purpose working in land use and real estate to improve public spaces. Monjar is part of a group of Boise-based writers and housing advocates who collaborate and write regular columns appearing in the Idaho Capital Sun about issues related to affordability in Idaho and beyond.