Domestic violence affects many people at different stages of their lives and is currently one of the most prevalent forms of violence against women in Canada. It has also been identified as one the leading causes of housing instability, including homelessness, for women and children. To better understand the links between housing instability and domestic violence, we led a study between January and April 2019 in Parc-Extension, a neighbourhood located in the North West of Montreal.
Based both on statistical evidence and on interviews we led with community groups, our findings show that as one of Canada’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as the neighborhood with the highest concentration of immigrants in Montreal (at 61%), the struggles associated with both material deprivation and the immigration experience — including but not limited to role changes, financial strain, integration challenges to the host society, language barriers, lack of accessible services, interpersonal and institutional racism, housing instability, and more — can reduce feelings of self-worth, increase the likelihood of family conflict and violence, and make domestic violence more difficult to address once it occurs.
In this blog post, we aim to focus on the specific issue of housing and its influence on the risk of domestic violence. Following the evidence shown here, we call for increased efforts and resources to be simultaneously implemented into a housing strategy and a domestic violence prevention and response strategy in order to contribute to a more dignified and secure life for residents of Parc-Extension and other Canadian neighbourhoods.
In 2016, Montreal Police Services (SPVM) published a report in which Parc-Extension ranked fifth out of thirty-two neighbourhoods in Montreal for spousal violence rates. In the most recent SPVM report (2018), it dropped to 12th place but remains above the city median. Considering the very low rates of criminality for most other offences in the neighbourhood, this statistic remains a significant indication of a social problem that the neighbourhood is facing. In making sense of the most recent statistics, one must also consider that domestic violence is widely underreported and that reporting is increasingly considered a last resort for victims due to mistrust of police — particularly among minority communities who have faced diminished cultural sensitivity and racism in Montreal.
Housing in Parc-Extension
In terms of housing, the average rent in Parc-Extension is lower than that elsewhere in the city, a pull factor for the low-income residents of the neighbourhood. However, it should be noted that close to half of Parc-Extension residents spend 30% or more of their income on rent. As housing expenses rise in the neighbourhood, less is left for these various necessities such as food, school supplies and transportation. Moreover, poor housing quality conditions have been identified as a major problem in the neighborhood, combined to tenants’ language and legal barriers which makes it harder for them to uphold their rights. Our interview with the Comité d’Action de Parc-Extension (CAPE), the neighborhood’s housing committee, indicated that landlords often take advantage of their tenants’ lack of awareness of their rights in order to avoid reparations that the latter are entitled to ask for, and consequently get away with renting out apartments with mould, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs.
The information provided by the CAPE illustrates how just in the context of housing alone, the stress-inducing factors that come with the process of immigration — which include financial strain, institutional discrimination, and limited housing options which can lead to unsafe living environments and legal issues — are all inextricably linked, and exacerbated by enduring poverty and material hardship.
Housing Precarity and Domestic Violence
Previous research highlights the links between domestic violence and economic marginalization. The crisis of housing affordability in Parc-Extension, with a vacancy rate of only 0.6% for two-bedroom apartments according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s October 2018 survey data, can have an impact on the capacity of women experiencing domestic violence to secure housing away from their abusers. Housing shortages make it difficult for women to leave violent situations, as they risk homelessness if they cannot afford rent.
It should also be noted that Parc-Extension is currently undergoing a process of rapid gentrification, through which mean rents are rising and low-income households wishing to stay in the neighbourhood have increasingly fewer housing options at their disposal. If women have to move away from Parc-Extension to find affordable housing, they will end up farther away from the services that cater to them and where they feel comfortable and welcomed. They will be farther away from the city centre, and they will be farther away from their community and friends. These phenomena render them even more at risk of social isolation.
Promising Practices and Recommendations
Based on the links we have highlighted between domestic violence and the various economic, social and institutional barriers women may face while seeking to obtain and maintain stable housing, we call for an increased provision in affordable housing as a key strategy to both reduce the risk of domestic violence and support the concerned women and their children. We believe that an affordable housing strategy can complement the initiatives that have recently sought to raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence, including intervention and prevention services.
For instance, the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, a provincial network of women’s shelters, has led a campaign in Quebec inviting municipalities to declare themselves, through a formal resolution, allies against domestic violence. Several concrete measures were suggested by the Regroupement to assist women experiencing domestic violence and their children: analyze the service offer in domestic violence to develop and refine it, define a commemorative place in the municipality so that the shelters and the women advocacy groups can gather during commemorative events or awareness-raising activities, mobilize to organize an awareness-raising activity in collaboration with the shelters and women's advocacy groups, give free bus tickets to the shelters and groups to allow victims of domestic violence and their children to travel from the services to their home or shelter, amongst many other propositions.
In the case of Parc-Extension, our interviews with Afrique au Féminin, a non-profit organization supporting immigrant women in the neighbourhood, as well as with the CAPE and local community activists, have led us to identify some key priorities to address domestic violence more effectively. The neighbourhood would notably need a more accessible women’s shelter, as the one that currently provides services to women from Parc-Extension is based in Laval, a city on the north shore of Montreal. Closer collaboration between public institutions and grassroots organizations in the neighbourhood, both in terms of resource allocation and knowledge exchange, was also identified as a priority, since the latter know the needs and situations of women best. Finally, an increased provision of affordable housing was identified as a crucial component of any program to reduce the risk of domestic violence and increase the autonomy of women who experience it.
On a broader scale, devising a strategy that fully takes into account the intersection between domestic violence, housing instability and homelessness, while also recognizing the impact of stress-inducing factors such as poverty and the immigration experience, appears as especially important for neighborhoods such as Parc-Extension, with a high concentration of individuals on the receiving end of various oppressive structures and processes such as patriarchy, racism and economic marginalization. We hope that these findings can provide a relevant basis for further reflection both on the broad consequences of the current affordable housing crisis in Canada and on the ways of addressing domestic violence, in Parc-Extension and in other Canadian neighbourhoods as well.