Who should be allocated social housing?

Neil Morland, 06 October 2022

There have been differing views on who should be prioritised for an allocation of social rented housing since the first public homes were built in the late 19th century. It’s an important question continues to be discussed, most recently at a workshop, Allocations and lettings: workshop for housing associations, run in partnership with the NHF. Furthermore, with around 250,000 homes allocated each year and just under 1.19m households on social housing waiting lists, it is something that housing associations consider every day. When deciding who should be allocated social housing, housing associations will have to carefully consider how to balance national policy objectives, public law requirements and regulatory expectations, alongside organisational priorities. It is important that housing associations continue to reflect on their policies to ensure that those who need social housing the most are being suitably prioritised for the limited number of homes available to-let.

When considering who should be allocated social housing, it is important to have a clear understanding of what the situation is currently. New statistics have been published on social housing allocations in England in 2020/2021 that show who were allocated homes last year. So, what do they reveal? They show that one-third of all allocations made during that year were to existing social housing tenants transferring within the sector, with two-thirds being made to those on housing waiting lists. They also tell us more about why people are looking to be allocated a social rented home. Moving to independent accommodation, leaving an overcrowded property, and being asked to leave my family or friends, were the three main reasons why people were seeking an allocation of social rented housing.

We can also see that social rent allocations are largely being made to those who need them most: one-fifth of all allocations were made to applicants who had experienced homelessness, a further one-quarter were made to people who’d been occupying unfit housing, were needing to move due to health and wellbeing factors, or because of other hardships (the rest were allocated to those whose housing need was not met by the private rented market or homeownership). Finally, the statistics reveal that households led by a single adult accounted for over three-quarters of those allocated social rented housing. Compared to the overall population they are more likely to have lower income levels and be younger, unemployed, Black and female.  

We know that more can still be done, however, to ensure that those who are in the most need have access to social housing. The Charter for Social Housing, sets out an intention to improve how housing allocations are made to people who have experienced homelessness, are vulnerable, or have disability-related housing access need. This forms part of a wider policy ambition to ensure social housing is allocated fairly, which includes an expectation that housing associations and local authorities will work even more closely together in this respect.

The law defines social rented housing as ‘low-cost homes for rent at below the market rate to people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market’.

Whilst the Tenancy Standard doesn’t specify any particular persons that should be allocated social housing, there is an expectation that housing associations will work closely with local authorities to allocate homes to those who have experience homelessness. It is also expected that they will help rehouse any of their tenants whose home is under-occupied or overcrowded. Aside from these stipulations, housing associations are able to decide for themselves who should be allocated social housing, provided any rules are consistent with legal requirements.

One measure of housing need is a person’s economic circumstances as a high income would very likely mean they could satisfy their housing needs via homeownership or the private rented sector. However, a person’s characteristics and experiences are equally valid factors for why they might need social housing. Whatever criteria a housing association adopts to allocate social housing, it’s important to remember that for this purpose, housing associations are a public body. Consequently, any decision about the allocation of social housing can be an appealed to the courts and in specified circumstances complaints can be made to quasi-judicial bodies (e.g. Equality and Human Rights Commission, Information Commissioner’s Office). Housing association, therefore, have both a moral and legal obligation to ensure that their approach to allocations continues to meet the needs of the communities they serve. This may mean refreshing policies to reflect current need and demographics to ensure they are up to date and can continue to allow housing associations to allocate housing to those who need it most.