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.

What can I expect from the service? Pros and Cons

Just as associations vary in so many ways (in terms of the type of property they own, their objectives, the type of resident they target services at, etc), so, too, the quality and efficiency of the services provided vary greatly between organisations. Investigate thoroughly before you commit to a property. Talk to existing residents and ask about the procedures in place for investigating complaints and service requests. Walk around: are pavements and walkways clear of rubbish? Is graffiti a problem?

Housing associations generally provide rental accommodation at “affordable” prices; of course, the definition of affordable varies between areas and associations. However, the obvious advantages to renting from a housing association include rent which is usually subsidized to below market value. As mentioned above, some may also offer shared-ownership schemes to assist people who want to buy a property but cannot afford to do so independently.

Additionally, you are dealing with a large, registered and audited company rather than an individual landlord, providing increased peace of mind; you have less chance of getting a dodgy deal, and an established complaints procedure to deal with any difficulties.

One of the key characteristics of housing associations is that they are overseen by a voluntary committee or board, which usually includes residents. If the system works, this makes them a democratic housing management process, allowing residents a say in the running of their homes. Unfortunately, as with any democratic system there is of course a risk that the decision-making process may be ineffectual and long-winded, and endless hours of meetings required to resolve any problems!

Although the properties owned by associations do vary in character, the majority of accommodation is composed of complexes (typically blocks and estates of flats) rather than individual properties. You should consider this before you approach a housing association (or your local council, usually the first port of call).

How are these associations regulated?

The Homes and Community Agency is the executive non-departmental public body responsible for providing homes and business premises for those that need them.

Elsewhere in the UK, this function is performed by Scottish Housing Regulator, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and the Welsh Assembly

These agencies provide housing associations with advice and support, and regulate their performance through regular inspection against specific criteria. Inspections are geared in the main towards financial performance and efficiency, rather than the experience they provide for individual residents, but it might be worth visiting the relevant website and checking a housing association’s performance before you seek their help in finding accommodation.

Facts and Figures

In England:
  • there are 1,500 housing associations
  • providing around 2 million homes
  • for over 5 million residents
  • overseen by more than 30,000 volunteer committee members

Any big names?

Housing over 50,000 people, the Peabody Trust is one of the biggest housing associations in Greater London, with property in many immensely desirable locations (such as Waterloo, walking distance to London’s west end, and classy Fulham). Its mission statement boldly declares that its aims are “to tackle poverty, provide good, affordable housing and to make a difference through every project or initiative it undertakes.” The Trust manages a wide range of “social housing” accommodation, which includes both housing estates and individual properties, and also has accommodation at market value or a subsidized market value.

Residents must be referred via their local authority for social housing, but market value accommodation is open to all applicants. However, tenants of market value accommodation are required to be in full-time employment to be eligible.

Case Studies

Resident 1:

Key worker accommodation resident

Name: Gideon

Age: 22

Occupation: Teacher (on the TeachFirst scheme for graduates)

From: Nottingham. Moved to London for job

Salary: £20,000/year

Lives: Key worker accommodation in Vauxhall, central London

Rent: £400/month, inclusive of bills and council tax

Reasons for choosing Housing Association Accommodation: It’s specially geared towards key workers and rent is lower than commercial prices. I couldn’t afford to live in such a nice central area if I was paying commercial rates. Plus the property is new and clean and electricity etc is included. On the down side, I have to share a kitchen, which can be annoying. However, it’s very sociable – everyone in my building is very friendly and in some ways it’s just like being back in halls at university!

Resident 2:

Mother in a housing association flat

Name: Samantha

Age: 31

Occupation: Trained as a nurse, currently a full-time mum

From: Manchester, moved to London with husband

Salary: n/a. Supported partially by ex-husband, partially through benefits

Lives: 3 bedroom flat in Eltham, South London

Rent: £250/month, partially covered by housing benefit

Reasons for choosing Housing Association Accommodation: When I separated from my husband I first approached the council for housing and was passed on to the housing association. I was initially housed in a very small flat in a central London estate, but after a month they were able to transfer me to this roomy flat in Eltham. I like the flexibility that a big housing association with lots of property provides, but the downside is definitely the redtape and paperwork.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.