Allocation of social housing in Scotland; policy and practice

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Imagine you can’t afford to live in your current home or you want to move away from your parents or partner. Maybe you don’t want to, or can’t afford to, buy a property or pay for a deposit for a private let.

You might then think about social housing (provided by councils or housing associations), as an option. Many people do. An estimated 130,000 households were on a housing list in 2017 and a further 20,000 had applied for social housing using a choice-based housing list (see more on this below).

Social landlords in Scotland own around 594,000 properties. But turnover of these properties is relatively low.  Recent Scottish Government statistics show that 9% of stock became available to let in 2017/18.

Each social landlord has to have a policy for allocating their properties. So, social landlords’ allocation policies need to focus on the best way to use a limited resource.

SPICe_2019_Housing_Social Housing_Social housing lets

It’s clear from some of the enquiries that SPICe deals with that there can sometimes be a bit of a mystery around how housing allocations work in practice.

Social landlords need to take into account the law on allocations when they devise their allocation policies. But within this framework landlords have a wide degree of discretion to devise their own policies.

With over 180 social landlords in Scotland this means there are many different variations across the country.

So, this blog takes a quick look at the way houses are allocated and outlines forthcoming changes to the law on allocations.

Social housing allocation law

The law on social housing allocations is set out in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987. From 1 May 2019, there will be some changes made as a result of provisions in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014.

It’s probably fair to say though that these aren’t radical changes. The main changes are to the ‘reasonable preference’ categories.

At the moment, social landlords must give ‘reasonable preference’ to five categories of applicants, including homeless people and those living in overcrowded housing.  This will change to three reasonable preference categories:

  • people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness and who have unmet housing needs
  • people living under unsatisfactory housing conditions and who have unmet housing needs
  • social housing tenants who are under-occupying.

The first two categories are broadly the same as existing ones, although they are qualified by the applicant also needing to have, “unmet housing needs.”

Scottish Government guidance on social housing allocations says:

An example of when it may be possible to meet housing need other than by giving an applicant reasonable preference for a social housing allocation would be where someone’s current home can be adapted to meet the household’s needs, for example by the installations of a ramp, stairlift or wet floor shower.

There is also a new reasonable preference category of social housing tenants who are under-occupying their home. This, for example, might make it easier for landlords to help elderly people living in family sized housing downsize to smaller accommodation.

The law also sets out the things that social landlords cannot take into account in their allocation policy, such as the applicants’ income or the length of time an applicant has lived in a landlord’s area.

The only change here is that, if they wish, social landlords will be able to take into account whether an applicant owns any property (although there are certain circumstances where they can’t consider this).

Allocation policies in practice

Most commonly, landlords use a ‘needs based’ allocation policy where priority is usually based on the number of points awarded for each housing need.

Other landlords have allocation policies involving ‘groups.’ For example, applicants are placed into one of several groups depending on their housing needs. The landlord will set targets for properties they allocate to each group.  Allocations within each group are then determined by priority.

Some landlords operate a ‘choice-based’ letting system. A key feature is that applicants ‘bid’ for advertised properties to let. So, the applicant has more control over the process at the start.

In some areas, landlords operate ‘common housing registers.’ This means that someone can make an application for housing to more than one landlord at a time. Less commonly, a group of landlords may also operate a common housing allocation policy.

The 2014 Act changes are supposed to help increase the flexibility that social landlords have when they are making allocations and to help them make the best use of their stock.

Social landlords have been reviewing their policies as a result of the 2014 Act changes. How much policies will change in practice and how much this helps make best use of social housing will of course remain to be seen.

Kate Berry,  Senior Researcher (Housing)