What is a housing association and what services do they offer?

What is a housing association?

A not-for-profit organisation which owns, lets and manages rental housing. As not-for-profit organisations, revenue acquired through rent is ploughed back into the acquisition and maintenance of property.

Beyond this definition there is very wide variation. Housing associations may or may not be registered charities, and they may or may not be geared towards assisting particular social groups with accommodation – for instance, older or disabled people. Rent may or may not be subsidised to varying degrees.

Housing associations are classified by the property industry as “registered social landlords”, along with YMCA hostels and housing co-operatives.

Accommodation owned by housing associations is known as “social housing”, a loose term which incorporates government-owned council housing and other affordable accommodation.

Who is their accommodation for?

Everybody. Housing associations were developed with the aim of making accommodation available and affordable for all. In the recent past they have been perceived as an option for those in the lower-income brackets or in particular need. However, as housing becomes more expensive, especially in larger cities, housing association rentals may increasingly provide the best opportunity for younger people to find a home in a desirable area. They may also offer financial assistance for people buying their own property who, for a variety of reasons, would be unable to honour a commercial mortgage deal.

Housing association accommodation is often utilised as an alternative to council-owned housing and the majority of tenants are still referred to housing associations through their local authority, generally because they initially apply for council housing but are assessed as not being in great enough need. The referral might also be given because a housing association in the area which is specifically tailored to their needs (for example, younger single people or those with mental health problems).

Do they provide any other services?

In addition to general housing provision, the majority of supported accommodation in the UK is run by housing associations. This is targeted at specific groups – older people, or those with mental health problems or disabilities, etc. To be classified as “supported accommodation”, a certain amount of services must be provided in addition to housing – assistance, therapy, meals, etc.

How did housing associations develop?

Unique to the UK, they originally appeared in the post-Industrial revolution years of the 19th century, emerging alongside the new middle-class. They grew in importance in the 1960s and 70s with the increase in emphasis on social inclusion, and grew in the 1980s, when limitations imposed on council housing by the Thatcher government enabled them to take over a much bigger share of the social housing market, increasing in size and importance.

In recent years, housing associations have been put under increased pressure to be accountable and to provide value for taxpayer’s money, which have caused the government to come under the criticism that their service is becoming more commercial and less beneficial to the poorest sectors of society.