A housing association in the United Kingdom is a voluntary organisation aiming to provide affordable housing, sometimes with social support, to those in need of it. It is distinguished from a housing society, which is in effect a cooperative of the owners/tenants.
The beginnings of the movement
Setting aside the almshouses set up from medieval times onwards, the origins of housing associations can be seen in the first half of the 19th century, as a response to the appalling housing conditions in some areas of Victorian Britain, especially urban areas. Concern about these conditions led philanthropically-minded people to set up organisations which attempted to bring about improvements. The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, set up in 1841, and the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes in 1844 (following on from the Labourers Friendly Society of 1830), both aimed to show that decent housing could be provided at rents which would provide a 5% return on capital, compared with the normal 7%. They hoped to gain commercial imitators, but in this they did not succeed. Other associations were set up around the country, some of which survived, most of which did not. Among the survivors was the Hastings Cottage Improvement Society, inaugurated in 1857, which explicitly set out to provide for the "lowest" class. However, the rents they charged would in effect have taken too great a proportion of the wages of the lowest earners. On a different (charitable) basis, and bigger was the Peabody Trust, set up in 1862 following a large donation for the amelioration of the condition of the poor from George Peabody, an American philanthropist resident in London. Sir Curtis Lampson, who ran it, asserted that no large scheme could succeed unless it charged at least 12 shillings a week rent, which would be for only one room. The Peabody Trust did in fact let rooms at only two shillings a week, but because they would not allow overcrowding, this in effect excluded the neediest families. Many philanthropic housing schemes at this time came under the influence of Octavia Hill, who insisted on strict rules and personal rent collection. She herself only ran relatively small schemes, and overall the contribution which the embryonic housing associations made to reducing the housing problem was very small, and concentrated heavily in London.
Early philanthropic housing
The charitable bodies already mentioned were, by definition, not for profit. Apart from these, the movement towards the modern housing association began in the late 1880s with co-partnership housing societies, though even these allowed individual outside investors, whose interests might dominate. By 1914 the voluntary societies had built more than twice as many dwellings as the local authorities.
After the First World War the local authorities became the main providers of subsidised rented housing, because the scale of the problem was such that the "public utility societies" could not be counted on to deliver, being too few and lacking the geographical coverage. But the Ministry of reconstruction did recognise that their help was desirable. The 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act permitted loans and subsidies to the relevant Industrial and Provident Societies. The regulations governing such support included granting the right of tenants to be represented on Boards of Management. Charities were also eligible. Many more organisations came into being in the 1920s, but had not the resources to undertake new building, being mostly small-scale, though the amount of refurbishment of existing property is not known. They were still largely financed by individual investors through shares or low-interest loans. The largest was set up by colliery owners on a non-profit basis, to house miners.
Housing associations today
The housing association movement grew gradually. In the 1980s, legislation introduced by the Conservative government to reduce local authority control of subsidised housing led to a large scale expansion of housing associations. In 2013 housing associations in England had 2.8 million properties housing over 5 million people.
- Malpass, P. Housing Associations and Housing Policy: a historical perspective. Macmillan Press. 2000
- Gauldie, E. Cruel Habitations: a history of working class housing. George Allen & Unwin. 1974
- Harris, B. The Origins of the British Welfare State. Palgrave Macmillan. 2004