What is social housing?

Social housing is rented property that’s owned and managed by social landlords – usually local councils and housing associations. It’s cheaper than privately rented housing and offers greater, longer-term security for tenants.

Waiting lists are often long and there is high demand for social housing.

How to apply for a council home

You should apply through the local council in the area you want to live. Most councils have an online application form or you can ask them for one. You can find their contact details on Gov.uk.

When you apply, you should give as much detail as you can and include information explaining your situation. If you have a medical problem, you may need letters from your doctor or health professionals to support your application. If you need help to complete the application, let the council know.

If your application is accepted, you’ll go on a waiting list. However, being on a waiting list is no guarantee you’ll get a home. Nobody has a right to social housing – you only have the right to make an application. The application process will decide if you qualify for housing, and it will also determine your priority on the waiting list.

If you qualify, you could be offered a council or a housing association home. You may be asked to say where you want to live in the area. If your council has a long waiting list, you could apply for homes in other areas as well. The more flexible you are, the greater your chances. You can be on several waiting lists at the same time if you qualify, which could also increase your chances of being housed.

If you’re homeless or threatened with homelessness, the council may have to help you to stay in your home or provide you with somewhere to live. The Crisiswebsite has more details about what you can expect from your council if you’re in this situation.

How the council decides

Councils allocate homes according to need and they set their own priorities. You should be able to check the rules and priorities on the council’s website. You can also ask for details of their allocation policy from the council’s housing office or contact your local Citizens Advice who may help you get a copy.

To qualify, you’ll probably have to be on a low income or have limited savings. You may also have to have a local connection. A local connection means that you’ve lived in the area for some time, or you work there, or have family living in the area. Not all councils require this, so you should check their website if you’re thinking of applying to live in a different area.

Councils usually use a points or banding system to decide priority. You may get some preference in certain situations. For example, if:

  • you’re homeless
  • you’re living in poor conditions
  • you have a medical condition made worse by where you live, or a disability that makes it hard for you to move around your home
  • you need to be close to a relative so they can care for you.

Ask the council how long you will have to wait. It can take years and some people never get social housing. If you need to move quickly, consider renting from a private landlord.

Some councils offer properties directly. If the council makes you a suitable offer and you turn it down, you could be suspended from the waiting list for a while.

If your circumstances change during this time, you should let the council know. This is because a change in your circumstances can affect your priority on the waiting list and the type of housing you may receive.

Choice-based letting schemes

Some councils operate a choice-based letting scheme. They advertise available council and housing association properties and people on the waiting list bid for the property. In some areas, existing tenants may also be able to bid if they want a transfer.

Each council has its own process - check the details with your council. Properties are usually listed online and you may also be able to see them in newsletters and leaflets in libraries, community centres and the housing office. The listing explains who each property is for – for example, an older person or a household with a disabled family member. You may be able to bid online, by text or by post. If you have difficulty with the bidding process, ask your council for help. They should support you with the bidding process and provide information in an accessible format, such as Braille or audio.

Usually the bidder with the highest priority is offered the property first. They go and look at it and if they turn it down, it’s offered to the next person on the list. Sometimes more than one person gets to see the property at the same time.

Applying for a housing association home

In most areas, you should apply through your council for a housing association property. Some housing associations have their own waiting lists and you might have to apply to them directly. Ask your council for a list of housing associations that have open waiting lists. You can apply to more than one housing association. You can find more information about housing association tenancies on Gov.uk.

If you’re turned down

If the council decides you don’t qualify, they must write to you explaining why. You have the right to request a review. You should do this in writing and keep copies of any letters. You can also ask for a review if you disagree with the level of priority the council has given you or if you’re not happy with the way you were assessed. Contact Shelter or your local Citizens Advice if you need help.

If you applied to a housing association directly, ask them for their review process.

If you’re not happy with the outcome of the review, you can make a complaint to the housing association. If you’re still not satisfied, you can contact the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

Exchanging properties

If you live in social housing, you may be able to swap your home with another tenant anywhere in the UK, depending on what type of tenancy you have. This is called a mutual exchange or tenancy exchange.

Unlike a transfer, which is arranged by your landlord, you organise the swap yourself. You can search for properties on exchange websites such as Homeswapper and Exchange locata.

Once you’ve found someone you want to swap with, you both have to get permission from your respective landlords. The landlord has six weeks to decide whether to give you permission. They can only refuse if there is a good reason, for example if:

  • your home has been adapted for special needs and nobody in the other tenant’s household has those needs
  • the size of the property you’re moving to is too big or small for your needs.

If they refuse, check the reason carefully as it may be worth appealing. Contact a housing adviser for advice.

If you owe any rent, you may only get permission once you’ve paid the arrears.

Before swapping, make sure you check your tenancy rights in the new property as they may not be the same. It’s a good idea to get independent housing advice. Contact Shelter or your local Citizens Advice.

It’s illegal for you or the other tenant to charge money for the exchange.

Next steps

For housing advice, contact Shelter on 0808 800 4444 or your local Citizens Advice on 03444 111 444.

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