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.


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