Social housing

What is social housing

Social housing is lower-cost accommodation provided by a local council or housing association. Social tenants rent their home from a housing association or the local council, who act as landlord.

Housing associations are not for profit organisations that own, let, and manage rented housing

Social housing is sometimes referred to as council housing, although situations differ as to the type of tenancy agreements that are signed, and the rights that different tenants have over their property.

In the social housing sector, rent prices are determined by local income levels in order to provide affordable housing for all. Social housing is an alternative to the private rental sector.  It offers the potential of lower rent costs and greater long term security to tenants. Unlike the private sector, housing is let on the basis of need.

Need is generally understood to be those who are living in unsatisfactory or unsanitary accommodation, those legally classed as homeless or threatened with homelessness, and those who need to relocate for welfare or medical reasons.

Camaigners highlight the need to build far more social housing.

As of April 2013, complaints relating to social housing have been monitored by the Housing Ombudsman Service. This is a non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Housing Ombudsman Service ensures that social housing providers are themselves respecting minimum landlord requirements, and it has the authority to take disciplinary measures where necessary.

In the May 2022 Queens Speech, the government announced plans for a ‘Social housing regulation’ bill.  This will allow housing regulators to undertake inspections and intervene when social landlords are failing their tenants.  a new ‘Tenants Satisfaction Measures’ scheme will allow renters to see how their landlords are preforming.  There will also now be no cap on the levels of fines that can be issued to landlords who fail to meet standards.

The case for more social housing

According to the National Housing Federation (NHF) in 2019, England needs to build around 145,000 new social homes each year to keep up with the country’s growing demand for housing. This includes the provision of 90,000 extra homes at below-market rent.

In 2018, 6,000 new social homes were built.  Critics argue that these figures are causing an acute housing stock shortage, and that there is a national housing crisis.

Proponents of the social housing sector point to the following:

Affordable rent prices

Rent prices in social housing are determined by an area’s local income and are generally lower than in the private sector. A tenant’s rent is capped at a set rate, meaning that tenants won’t be out priced, and forced to relocate due to rising housing costs.

For many, securing an affordable social home is a crucial step to abolishing their dependency on housing benefits.

Protecting society’s most vulnerable

Social housing is intended to accommodate all those with genuine needs.

To apply for social housing, individuals are asked to provide information such as their current residence, their health, and income, which is then assessed to decide their level of priority. While this caters for society’s most vulnerable, a notable drawback of social housing is the long waiting lists and the near impossibility of meeting current demand.

Ensuring long-term stability

The mean tenure in the social housing sector is approximately four times that in the private sector. The guarantee of secure and long-term tenancies provides greater protection to tenants while allowing them to establish a permanent place of residency and contribute to the surrounding community.

This is particularly pertinent among families with school age children, for whom lack of social stability is considered a primary barrier to educational attainment.

Quality-controlled conditions

According to an English Housing Survey, social housing has a lower proportion of non-decent homes than both the private and owner-occupied sectors. Oversight from the Housing Ombudsman ensures that the quality of social housing adheres to an adequate minimum standard.

Challenges faced by the social housing sector

Concerns have been raised that the social housing sector still  requires stricter oversight. It is suggested that many council homes exist only to provide the bare minimum to society’s most vulnerable.

The quality of some social housing was propelled to the forefront of public attention following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017. A member of the Grenfell United survivors’ group, Edward Daffarn, has called for improved tenant representation and the creation of a consumer watchdog for those living in social housing.

In response to the fire at Grenfell Tower, the National Housing Federation asked the government to establish a fund, in addition to the existing £400 million for cladding replacement, to be spent on further safeguarding measures.

There has also been criticism about the physical accessibility of some social housing, and the impacts this has on disabled residents. This issue is complicated further by the UK’s ageing population and the subsequent need of catering to older tenants.

Critics have also called on housing associations to take greater measures to become more engaged with their residents. It is suggested that residents in some sheltered or social housing estates feel isolated and often struggle to integrate into the wider community.


“In a nation where many millions rely on their local council or a housing association to help keep a roof over their head – and in the UK the social rented sector makes up a greater share of housing stock than in most other major economies – it is nothing short of a scandal. And it’s one this government is going to deal with.” – Boris Johnson, Social Housing White Paper, Foreword, 2020

“If residents are to be active citizens, they need to feel they mean something to their housing provider” – Darwin Bernardo, Founder of the Nutmeg Community, North London, 2019

“Some of the large housing associations have acknowledged they must go back to their social purpose” – Tom Murtha, Former housing association chief executive and founding member of Social Housing Under Threat, 2019


In the 35 years following the end of the Second World War, local authorities and housing associations built 4.4 million social homes. [Source – Shelter].

Research carried out for the National Housing Federation and Crisis shows that we need 90,000 new social rented homes every year but a lack of funding means only about 5,000 are being built. [Source – National Housing Federation].

In 2018, forty-five per cent of social renting households were in the lowest fifth by income, and only 3% were in the top fifth. [Source – UK Collaborative for Housing Evidence]