The women who shaped social housing

Joanne Muigua, 08 March 2024

To mark International Women’s Day, we are celebrating their incredible work and achievements in social housing. From the outset, women have been instrumental in pioneering remarkable transformation in the sector and campaigning for better social housing rights. 
This blog will spotlight a few select figures, past and present. They include women who were at the helm during the conception of social housing, women who have ensured equal access to support, and women who have changed how we design homes for families.

There are many more pioneering women in housing. We would love to hear from members about your favourites. Send us your suggestions.

Octavia Hill 

One of the most celebrated social reformers in social housing, Octavia Hill brought decent housing to 3,000 of London’s poorest communities. In 1866, with financial aid from her friend and benefactor John Ruskin, Octavia bought several homes to rent to those in need at affordable rates.  

She was pioneering due to her dedication to tenants’ rights and improving working class living conditions. Most notably, she was influential in the forming of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890, which set standards for housing quality and sanitation.  

Octavia believed that your home was more than a shelter. It was a space for community. She nurtured close relationships with her tenants to improve their homes and lives, acquainting herself with their mood, wellbeing, and financial and employment status. Later, she would employ other female housing managers, who would act as social workers, assessing the needs of her tenants. 

Over the years money accrued from rents of her initial investment would pave the way for 15 housing schemes by 1974. This initiative is now known as Octavia Housing, which continues to provide housing in London.

Find out more about Octavia Hill. 

Elizabeth Denby 

A social reformer and urban planner, Elizabeth Denby’s legacy is influential to modern day views on social housing design and construction. She was a social science graduate, specialising in low-cost housing in Europe. Her experience as an active member of the 1930s voluntary housing movement led to her championing better affordable housing for workers. 

Elizabeth went on to establish herself as a prominent advisor to the housing and architecture sectors, notably working alongside eminent architect Maxwell Fry, renowned for his modernist contributions to British architecture. 

Her core belief regarding home design was that it must cater to the needs of the social housing tenants and be considerate of their views. A remarkable instance of this is her work on the Grade II listed Kensal House estate in West London. The build included a nursery, a playground, trade workshops, social clubs, and allotments. Each of the 68 flats was built with cost-effective measures but still consciously designed to promote individual space and privacy and reduce domestic workload. This was a pioneering project in the wake of the dilapidated and overcrowded slums that had become common for city dwellers. It encouraged the housing sector to reform their model of design to foreground people.

Find out more about Elizabeth Denby. 

Olive Morris 

A prominent housing and squatters’ rights activist, Olive Morris campaigned for better housing for Black communities. Critical of the living conditions of Black women, she worked to increase their access to decent and safe housing. 

Olive dedicated herself to political and housing activism. She was a founding member of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent, a junior member of the British Black Panthers and worked alongside Black women’s cooperatives in Manchester and London. 

By the 1970s, it had become extremely difficult for Black and Asian communities to access housing in Britain. In these political surroundings, Olive became interested in the squatter’s movement as a solution to housing for these communities. She was the first to squat a privately owned home in Brixton and fight off illegal evictions, setting an example for homeless people across the country. The squat would later become amongst the longest running squats in Britain and be used as a space for many other marginalised groups. 

Find out more about Olive Morris. 

Focus E15

Focus E15 is a formidable group of single mothers, who rallied against rising rents, evictions, and displacement. The movement was brought about in 2013, after the closure of homeless hostel the Foyer. The hostel was subject to budget cuts by Newham Council. 

The Focus E15 mothers petitioned for adequate and affordable social housing. Occupying homes on the nearby empty Carpenters Estate until the council agreed to let out the flats again, these women were able to demonstrate the issues facing poorer families in a burgeoning city.

Find out more about Focus E15. 


After the tragic events of Grenfell Tower, Yvette Williamson and Judy Bolton co-founded the group Justice for Grenfell (J4G) and have campaigned tirelessly for the victims and their families.

J4G have maintained that the authorities failed to adequately address the urgent needs of those affected, J4G stepped in. Their mission is to seek justice for the bereaved families, survivors, and evacuated residents.

The campaign works to ensure that the tragedy of Grenfell remains in the public consciousness. It strives to hold accountable the authorities and individuals responsible and aims to prevent a repeat of the tragedy, by eradicating the systemic issues facing those in social housing.

Find out more about Justice4Grenfell.

Find out more about International Women's Day.