There is an increasingly recognised, but under-explored link between domestic abuse and housing. Here, postgraduate researcher Dora Welker reflects on a recent conference and future directions for research.
As a first year doctoral student studying domestic abuse, poverty and homelessness, I had the privilege of attending the ‘Domestic Abuse and Housing: Bringing Together Research and Practice’ conference in late March 2018, which very closely related to my research interests. The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and the University of Essex’s Centre for Criminology brought together leading practitioners and academics for this valuable event, which was conceived by Alison Inman OBE, CIH’s president for 2017-18. Hosted by Savills in London, the conference made the case for the centrality of housing in reducing domestic abuse from a variety of perspectives. Highly interdisciplinary in nature, the conference hosted speakers from criminology, sociology, the women’s sector, housing research, and policy. Similarly, the speakers’ career stages varied greatly as well; we heard from Professors with OBEs as well as PhD researchers. Personally, the conference was vastly beneficial, not only in giving me additional resources, information and connections, but also in strengthening my understanding of the significance of the topic, and inspiring me greatly for further research into the complex connections between housing and domestic abuse.
After opening remarks and introductions from the conference organizers and hosts, Professor Sylvia Walby OBE (University of Lancaster) and Katie Ghose (CEO, Women’s Aid) ‘set the scene’ for the conference; detailing the centrality of housing in tackling domestic abuse and providing a statistical overview of the scale of the problem. Professor Walby asked us to consider which focus is more important in tackling domestic abuse: addressing gendered socio-economic inequalities (including providing women with more and better housing) or strengthening the criminal repercussions for perpetrators of domestic abuse (via legal reform). She emphasised the fundamental importance of the former and gave evidence of correlations between domestic abuse and women’s economic inequality. She showed, for instance, that unemployed women are at higher risk of experiencing domestic abuse than employed women, and that renters are at higher risk than owner-occupiers. While I was aware of these connections, seeing the stark differences in numbers really struck me. Professor Walby also made the crucial point that when counting repetitions of crime (rather than the number of victims) violence against women has actually been on the rise since the economic crisis. Katie added further statistics on the scope of the issue, pointing out that 1 in 10 crimes recorded by police is domestic abuse related, and 78 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner in 2016-2017. She also stressed that housing was the most important co-presenting issue for women using domestic abuse services in 2017, according to their annual report.
Presentations looking at research, policy and practice followed. Professor Nicole Westmarland (University of Durham) discussed research exploring children’s experiences of living with domestic abuse and highlighted the lack of (and cuts to) services and advocacy available to victims/survivors and their families. Tamsin Stirling (former Ministerial Advisor, Welsh Government) discussed the Welsh context: addressing recent changes in legislation, such as the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, the Social Services and Well-Being (Wales) Act 2014, the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, and the Renting Homes Act 2016. Bonnie Navarra (Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales) presented on the joined-up and victim-led response to domestic abuse implemented in South Wales, and made the case for mitigating Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) through housing-based supports. Her compelling argument (and one that I’ve seen come up repeatedly in my literature review) is that housing providers are uniquely well placed to pick up early warning signs of domestic violence and abuse that may be missed – or spotted only much later – by other organisations.
The afternoon sessions began with a contribution from Professor Aisha Gill CBE (University of Roehampton) who focused on Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women’s experiences of domestic abuse and the centrality of housing to addressing the issues they face. She made the case for more specialist and culturally sensitive provision to support BME women experiencing domestic abuse, explaining the paramount importance of access to suitable and appropriate housing in facilitating a woman’s decision to leave a violent partner. Penny East (SafeLives) shared her personal experience of domestic abuse with the audience, and spoke about her subsequent work with SafeLives. Penny emphasized the role of landlords in responding to domestic abuse: in her personal example she was ‘tied’ to her abusive ex-partner by a joint tenancy agreement and struggled to get appropriate advice about how to remove herself from the tenancy, with the landlord seeing her as ‘problem tenant’ and not a woman trying to escape domestic abuse. Penny emphasised that a crucial piece of responding to domestic abuse lies with housing and also noted how early intervention in this area can provide economically and morally better outcomes, e.g. by evicting the perpetrator instead of removing the family.
Kelly Henderson (University of Durham) and Ruth Weir (University of Essex) each presented on their PhD research. Kelly focused on the role of housing in a coordinated community response to domestic violence, drawing on interviews with housing professionals, refuge-service users, as well as perpetrators. Ruth presented on her research looking at neighborhood level predictors for domestic abuse using GIS data; her research asked what factors might impact on the levels of domestic abuse in a particular area and her results showed that income profiles and levels of anti-social behaviour were the top two factors.
Gudrun Burnet (Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA)) and Louise Steele (Standing Together) presented on the response of the housing sector to domestic abuse. Guddy, a founder of DAHA, emphasised how much housing providers can do to support victims of domestic abuse, and provided us with information on DAHA including priority areas, reasons for formation and some influential tasks undertaken (such as creating an accreditation process for housing providers). Louise spoke about a Housing First pilot aimed at supporting women affected by domestic abuse and multiple-disadvantage (e.g. offending behavior, substance abuse, children in care). For many of these women, refuge accommodation is not appropriate and it is hoped that Housing First can provide a useful alternative.
Dr. Yoric Irving-Clarke (Chartered Institute of Housing) and Dr. Beth Watts (Heriot-Watt University) provided concluding remarks at the end of the day and reflected on where practice and research (respectively) should be focused in the future. Both Yoric and Beth highlighted the fact that most research on domestic abuse has taken place in criminology, and invited housing researchers to participate further. From a personal perspective, this was an inspiring challenge to take up, and the conference was incredibly useful to me in ‘validating’ the significance of my research topic. I have a particular interest in initiatives that assist survivors of domestic abuse to stay in their homes in lieu of entering a refuge or temporary accommodation (if they wish to do so), and it was great to see several of the conference speakers make reference to such programmes. Regardless, there is still much to be studied – sanctuary schemes in particular haven’t been widely evaluated, and were not discussed at this conference – and further research on how housing practice can prevent homelessness due to domestic abuse is profoundly needed. I look forward to contributing further to these vital discussions.