Who gets social housing?

Each year social landlords let fewer and fewer units. Only a portion of these go to homeless households. These two facts make it harder and harder to end homelessness.

The amount of social housing and how we allocate social housing it has a significant impact on the number of people that experience homelessness.

The history of the allocation of social housing is a long and complex one. Before Cathy Comes Home, it was common for prospective tenants to have to prove that they were worthy of a council flat, even needing letters of recommendation from the Vicar. Those most in need of housing, or minority ethnic groups, were often excluded or discriminated against.

The advent of right to buy and the end of significant public housing construction led to the ‘residualisation’ of social housing allocation. This meant that the only people able to get a new council or housing association flat were those that had the very highest of needs.

Over the past 50 years, the number of social housing homes in England has slightly shrunk from 4.5m in 1970 to 4.1m in 2020. During this same period the number of households has increased from 15.8m to 24.4m. It’s no surprise that it is now very hard to get social housing and that the politics of allocating social housing are fraught.

Not only are there fewer units of social housing, but fewer homes are being let each year (a home might be let because it is empty after the last tenant left, or because it is newly built). In 2019/20 there were 213,000 housing association lets, down from 271,000 in 2013/14, drop of 21%. There were 93,000 local authority lets in 2019/20, down from 126,000 in 2013/14, a 26% drop.

Who got to move into these homes? The proportion of lets that go to homeless households has not significantly reduced. The lines in the chart below show the % of lets that have gone to (formerly) homeless households (yellow is for housing association, red for local authority), while the bars show the number of units that are let each year.

As well as homeless households, overcrowded households, those in unsuitable or unaffordable accommodation all move into social housing. Research by the National Housing Federation estimates that there are currently 3.7 million people living in overcrowded homes, 2.4 million in unaffordable homes, 1 million in unsuitable homes and 650,000 affected by homelessness.

The chart below shows the number of households in temporary accommodation. Most of these people will be hoping to get social housing, but they are competing with those in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes.

The only way of taking the sting out of these very hard decisions is to build significantly more social housing, which takes time. Time to get the money, assemble the land, get permissions and then actually build the homes.

Even if we were to achieve this, there are a couple of additional points that need to be considered.  The Localism Act 2011 gave local authorities more discretion about who can be excluded from housing registers including ‘unacceptable behaviour’ that will disqualify people from allocations. This means homeless households cannot get social housing in some situations.

Secondly, many people are not able to get social housing because of their immigration status. It might be that they are not eligible for social housing or that they cannot afford to pay the rent, as they cannot claim universal credit.

For these groups, even building significantly more social housing would not mean they go the housing they need.

Housing is expensive, and such small portions

Housing in England is very expensive and often poor quality. Ideally it would be affordable and decent. Which is another way of saying that affordability is not the only measure of whether people are adequately housed.

Over the past year or so Daniel Hewitt and his team at ITV News have been investigating the condition of social housing conditions across England. This has resulted in numerous horrific examples of housing that falls well below acceptable standards.

Kwajo Tweneboa has campaigned tirelessly on social media to expose the damp, disrepair and sub-standard conditions that many social housing tenants endure.

In most of the cases that have been exposed, the issue is not affordability. Rents in social housing are usually far lower than in privately rented accommodation. This is not necessarily true in temporary accommodation but most households in temporary accommodation will have the majority if not all their rent covered through the social security system.

More broadly, if we measure the cost of housing as a percentage of household income, we only get part of the picture.

Imagine you are paying 40% of your salary on rent and bills and you are earning £25k per year. By many measures your housing is unaffordable. Then you get the good news that you’ve been promoted and will get a pay rise to £30k per year. Perhaps you decide to move to a new place. The rent is more but it’s in a nicer neighbourhood. When you work out the numbers you find that you’re still paying 40% of your new salary on rent and bills.

In this example, your housing is no more affordable than it was before. But it’s better housing. The same can be said on a national level. If everyone got richer and used their money to improve their homes, then their homes would be better, even if everyone continued to pay the same percentage of their income on housing.

Shelter found that people wanted housing that was affordable but also: (1) Safe, warm & secure (2) with enough space (3) Stable (so that they can plan for the future (4) In a safe neighbourhood not too far from work, friends and family

If it’s a trade off between these factors (as it usually is) people will often sacrifice other factors (e.g. space) for affordability. This leads to people living in cramped, overcrowded conditions.

Crude measures of affordability only give us part of the picture. We can aim for housing that is not only affordable but also decent, and in a safe neighbourhood.

Japan has almost ended rough sleeping, so why don’t we learn from them?

On any given night shockingly high numbers of people sleep on the streets in America, while over the past 14 years, there has been an impressive and steady decline in the number of people sleeping rough in Japan.

The UK’s obsession with America, and an ignorance of Japan (and South East Asian in general) that borders on racism, means that we inexplicably spend far more time learning about American efforts to end homelessness than we do learning about what’s happened in Japan.

This chart shows the number of people seen sleeping on the street on one evening in both America and Japan over the past 20 years.

The contrast is striking. There has been a steady decline in Japan, whilst numbers in America continue to be abysmally high.

The Centre for Homleessness Impact have recently published the fourth edition of their excellent Evidence and Gap Maps Effectiveness Report. The table below shows that the vast majority of studies featured come from America.

So what happened in Japan? How has the number of people sleeping rough been reduced so consistently?

There are plenty of places to start but one dramatic incident in 2007 brought the issue to life for many people in Japan. 600 police officers and guards forcibly evicted people that had been sleeping in Nagai Park. The prompt was the IAAF World Championships that was being held that year and the desire to present a positive image of Japan to the world’s media.

As well as this crackdown, changes were made to the ‘Seikatsu Hogo’ (public assistance for livelihood protection).

The Japanese social security system is not, by international standards, particularly generous. While in theory the constitution says that “all citizens have the right to live a healthy and cultural minimum life”, in practice a single person who is out of work would be lucky to get benefits worth £800 per month.

What changed in the mid 2000s and onwards was the way the system was administered. Residency requirements were changed so that, for example, day labourers could qualify.

The system has several key elements:

  • A simple application process
  • A decision within 14 days 
  • Housing assistance is automatically provided if the person qualifies for the main support programme. This enables recipients to rent one of the low cost units that are available in Japanese cities, often in neighbourhoods with accommodation aimed at day labourers.

The ‘generality’ of the system means that in Japan it is far easier for those that need help to get it than it is in other countries, even when those other countries have a more generous system. 

Of course, street counts only give a partial picture of the number of people sleeping on the streets, and Japan is not perfect, not least for foreigners who find it difficult to claim benefits and too many people still sleeping in internet cafes and the like.

However, if you go to a conference on promising approaches to ending homelessness you will no doubt hear presentations about how housing first was developed in America and the enormous potential of this and other American approaches.

That’s not wrong but it is a little strange to spend so much time learning from America, a society where a startlingly high number of people sleep on the streets. Instead we should learn from Japan, which has so successfully used the benefits system to dramatically reduce the number of people sleeping rough.

This is timely since England is currently implementing a policy of reducing the generosity of our benefit system, while giving multi-year funding agreements to services that aim to prevent people from experiencing homelessness.


Comparison of Japan and America


Is homelessness going up or down?

Are more or less people going to experience homelessness in the future?

We’ve recently had some contradictory views.

The Government are right happy with the figures from the annual snapshot of rough sleepers. It does seem that there are now far fewer people sleeping on the streets now than there were before the pandemic.

(It’s worth noting that there are still people sleeping on the streets between October-December 2021 outreach teams recorded 1,314 people in London sleeping rough for the first time)

However, the English Homelessness Monitor strikes a more pessimistic note, projecting a significant increase in the numbers of people sleeping on the streets (as well as other forms of homelessness including sofa surfing)

Closer inspection reveals that there’s as much reason to be gloomy as to be positive. The number of households in temporary accommodation continues to rise

The number of homeless households continues to rise

The revolving door of households going through the system only to become homeless again, is showing some signs of improvement but is still stubbornly high

The government says there’s a new homelessness strategy coming and the noises are that there will be a focus on joint working including health, substance misuse and even building some new social housing.

It’s noticeable that there’s less mention of DWP or the Home Office being involved in the strategy.

Benefits and immigrations rules have a lot to do with how many people experience homelessness.

The amount that people are given in benefits is important, but so too are rules around who can claim and how. We’ve seen multiple approaches to this question over the past few years, with efforts to restrict or target benefits or to sanction recipients often leading to misery and homelessness.

Similarly, the hostile environment, including the “right to rent” and the rules around “no recourse to public funds” can put people in situations where it’s impossible for them to get any support with their housing.

As the authors of the homelessness monitor note, “a package of welfare benefit policies aimed at reducing destitution” would go a long way to ending homelessness.

Looking for answers in all the wrong places

The English should learn far more from how Japan responds to homelessness than from how America does.

Look at any list of ‘interventions’ that are designed to end homelessness and you will be immediately confronted by high quality studies from America and virtually no studies from Japan. That is not because America has solved the problem of homelessness while Japan is still figuring it out. Far from it. It’s because America has such a problem with homelessness that there are so many initiatives and studies looking at individual projects while Japan has for years had a highly effective system.

In 2020, 13,212 were counted as unsheltered in Texas, a state with a population of 29 million people.

In 2019, there were 4,266 people counted as sleeping rough in England, a country with a population of 56 million people.

Those numbers are probably completely incorrect, given how hard it is to count how many people are sleeping on the streets. However, it should be obvious that there are far fewer people living in Texas than living in England and that there are far more people sleeping without shelter in Texas than England.

Texas is not nearly the worst performing state. There were 113,660 people counted as ‘unsheltered’ in California, a horrifically large number. But even Texas, a state that is celebrated by many for its relatively low rents and the number of new homes built each year, has far more people experiencing homelessness than England.

Compare both countries with the situation in Japan where there were 3,992 people counted as homeless with a population of 126 million population.

Japan has done a far better job than either England or America at reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness. While it is useful to learn from individual programmes in America, it is far more useful to learn from general approach taken in Japan.

What next for housing associations? “Social housing plus” or get the basics right?

The RSA (my old employer) find that social renters have the lowest overall levels of subjective financial security.

This makes sense when we consider that:

  • The majority (80%) of social renters had no savings or investments. This was higher than the proportion of private renters (60%) and owner occupiers (32%) who reported having no savings.
  • Social renters were the least likely to be employed full-time (31% in full-time employment) compared to all other tenure types (52% of owner occupiers and 67% of private renters were in full-time employment).
  • The social rented sector had the highest proportion of those who were economically inactive of all tenure types at 23% (compared to 8% of private renters and 3% of owner occupiers). Partly explained by the fact that, 54% of social renters had a household member with a disability or long-term illness. This is a larger than the proportion of owner occupiers (31%) and private renters (25%).

This lack of financial security is probably one of the reasons that social renters are the most likely to say that they were often or always lonely in 2019-20 (12%), with 4-5% of private renters or owner occupiers reporting feeling lonely often or always. Social renters had the lowest average well-being scores and highest average anxiety scores of any tenure.

On twitter, Alan Lockey, the Head of the Future Work programme at the RSA argues that “social housing can provide a stable, long-term intervention point to wrap other support services around.”

Elsewhere, Inside Housing have run an interview with Kwajo Tweneboa, who is campaigning for better standards in social housing and has uncovered homes that are in a terrible state. This prompted to Chris Worrall (amongst other things, the editor of Redbrick, to tweet “About time we recognised the housing association model is failing miserably. It is just not sustainable and there is no incentive for them to repair and maintain.

Too many organisations are failing to deliver while top brass get paid investment banker wages.”

Tying the two stories together, Jamie Ratcliff, Executive Director of Network Homes, tweets “what should housing associations stop doing to fund the “plus”? When there is a massive shortage of social homes is it better to offer new services to existing residents where that means fewer homes for new residents?”

A good question given that:

  • Over three quarters (78%) of social renters said that they were very or fairly satisfied with their accommodation. This was lower than the proportion of owner occupiers (95%) and private renters (83%)
  • Two thirds (66%) of social renters said they were satisfied with the repairs and maintenance carried out on their home, lower than the proportion of private renters who said this (75%),
  • Overall, 70% of social renters said they were satisfied with housing services provided by their landlord, lower than the proportion of private renters who said they were satisfied (78%)

So, can housing associations provide “social housing plus” or should they just focus on repairs and maintenance? And who gets to decide?

Higher rents leads to more people becoming homeless

If it’s harder for people on lower incomes to afford their rent, then more people will end up sleeping rough.

The chart below shows the number of people that were seen sleeping rough in London and compares it with the precentage of their income the typical lower income household spent on private rent.

If the blue bars are higher that means more people were seen sleeping rough that year. If the organse line is higher it means that the typical lower income household had to spend more of their income on rent.

In 2014 there were 6,508 people seen sleeping rough in London and the typical lower income household spent 48% of their income on rent.

In 2016 there were 8,096 people seen sleeping rough in London and the typical lower income household spend 63% of their income on rent.

Poorer people were spending more of their money on rent and more people were sleeping on the streets.

The ‘affordability’ of rents is not the only reason for people sleeping on the streets but it is a very important reason.

Many women have been victims of domestic abuse, most do not tell the police and when they do many end up feeling safe

There are roughly 2 domestic homicides per week in the UK, a number that hasn’t fallen

This is the most extreme end of the enormous amount of domestic abuse that takes place. Over a quarter of women say they have been victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lives and 1 in 14 say they’ve been victims in the past year

In most cases, women do tell people about being victims of domestic abuse, although it’s not usually the police

This is partly because women do not think the police can help and some fear that involving the police will make things worse

When the police are called, almost as many women say they are dissatisfied with the outcome as say they are satisfied

1 in 4 women that have been victims of domestic abuse say they feel less safe after involving the police

All stats from here

Is the home all it’s cracked up to be?

Politicians and charities talk in glowing and unambiguously positive terms about the home. 

2021 was the year of “it’s coming home”, 2020 was the year of “stay at home, save lives” and charities are increasingly convinced that ‘housing first’ is one of the best ways to help people that have experienced homelessness.

This enthusiasm and uniformly positive rhetoric can obscure the obvious reality that the home is a place where a lot of harm is caused.

  • Home is the place where domestic abuse takes place, where people feel lonely and where people engage in some of their most self destructive behaviours around drink and drugs 
  • Home is a hard place to be if your home is overcrowded, in disrepair or poorly adapted to your needs.
  • Home is a constant source of anxiety and stress if you cannot afford your rent or if your neighbours are harassing you.

What would it look and feel like if we grappled with these obvious truths? If we thought not just about helping people find a home and sustain their home but if we considered how we could make people’s experience of the home better, or at least less bad?


Requires improvement

It’s back to school for lots of kids today. To illustrate the size of the challenges to improve housing in England, imagine a classroom of 30 children represents the population of England. In that classroom

  • 7 children are in poverty
  • 5 are in non-decent homes
  • 2 are in ‘rent induced’ poverty (ie they are not in poverty before the cost of housing but are after the cost of housing)
  • 1 is in an overcrowded household
  • A third of a child is homeless (including sofa surfing and living in temporary accommodation)


There were an estimated c23 million households in the England in 2020 with an average of 2.4 people per household giving a total population of c56m https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/datasets/householdsbyhouseholdsizeregionsofenglandandukconstituentcountries

22% of people are in relative poverty after housing costs. 17% are in relative poverty before housing costs. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/households-below-average-income-for-financial-years-ending-1995-to-2020

3% of households are overcrowded https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/housing/housing-conditions/overcrowded-households/latest

17% of homes are “non decent” ie  fail to meet the statutory minimum standard for e.g. do not provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort or are not in a reasonable state of repair or do not have reasonably modern facilities https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/945013/2019-20_EHS_Headline_Report.pdf

219,000 are homeless (including sofa surfing, temporary accommodation, hostels & on the street) https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/244702/crisis-england-monitor-2021.pdf