The history of housing associations

Housing associations have their roots in early philanthropy and charity, dating back to at least 1235 when an almshouse in Cirencester was established to offer shelter for the seriously ill.

The modern housing association movement was born in the late 19th century, when Victorian philanthropists set up charitable housing trusts to help homeless people and alleviate poverty.

Many of today’s housing associations – such as Peabody, the Guinness Partnership and Octavia – were founded in this period.

Housing associations continued to form through the early 20th century and, alongside local councils, played an important role in alleviating slum conditions. After World War II, council housebuilding boomed as the nation invested in social homes for post-war workers. However, for the first half of the 20th century, housing association homes made up a relatively small proportion of social housing overall.

This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. The influential film Cathy Come Home, along with homelessness campaigning by the newly formed charities Shelter and Crisis, increased public concern about homelessness. Many new housing associations were founded in this time with a clear aim of helping to tackle rising homelessness.

Then, in 1974, a new Housing Act meant housing associations could receive significant public funding for the first time to build new social homes. By 1980, there were more than 400,000 housing association homes in England. 

In the late 1980s, many councils transferred their social housing into housing association ownership through Large-Scale Voluntary Transfer agreements. Housing associations were also given new freedoms to borrow private funding to build new homes, topping up the funding they received from the government. They built 419,000 new homes between 1990 and 2010.

The recent work of housing associations has been shaped by government funding changes. In 2010, funding for building affordable housing reduced by 60% and funding for new social rented housing was stopped altogether.

Housing associations adapted to this change by generating their own income to build social and affordable rented homes. They began to develop more homes for sale and market rent and invested the proceeds into building more social homes and into supporting their local communities.

They built almost 20,000 social rented homes in this way between 2015/16 and 2018/19, as well as nearly 77,000 for affordable rent and nearly 43,000 for shared ownership.

Looking to the future, the nation needs to be building 90,000 social homes a year to solve our housing crisis.

Housing associations want to deliver this, and to support communities around the country to thrive, and they’re calling for the right government investment to make that happen.

Find out more about why we need more social housing.