In Ireland and the United Kingdom, housing associations are private, non-profit making organisations that provide low-cost "social housing" for people in need of a home. Any trading surplus is used to maintain existing housing and to help finance new homes. Although independent they are regulated by the state and commonly receive public funding. They are now the United Kingdom's major providers of new housing for rent, while many also run shared ownership schemes to help those who cannot afford to buy a home outright.
Housing associations provide a wide range of housing, some managing large estates of housing for families, while the smallest may perhaps manage a single scheme of housing for older people. Much of the supported accommodation in the UK is also provided by housing associations, with specialist projects for people with mental health or learning disabilities, with substance misuse problems (alcohol or illegal drugs), the formerly homeless, young people, ex-offenders, asylum seekers, and women fleeing domestic violence.
In Australia, the term housing association refers to larger, growth oriented 'not-for-dividend' community housing providers. Smaller community housing providers may include trusts, cooperatives etc. State and Territory owned public housing represents about 80% of social housing in Australia. Over the years these public housing entities have had different names including 'housing commissions' 'housing trusts' etc.
Housing associations first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century as part of the growth in philanthropic and voluntary organisations brought about by the growth of the middle classes in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Early examples are the Guinness Trust and Peabody Trust.
They increased in importance over the last decades of the twentieth century due to changes to council housing brought in by the Thatcher government, when rules were introduced that prevented councils subsidising their housing from local taxes, channelled grants for construction of new social housing to housing associations and allowed council tenants to buy their homes at a large discount. This, combined with cost-cutting initiatives in local government and a housing benefit scheme that was more generous to housing associations than local authorities, led to many councils transferring their housing stock to housing associations. These organisations are often referred to as large-scale voluntary transfer organisations or local housing companies.
The Housing Acts of 1985 and 1988 facilitated the transfer of council housing to not-for-profit housing associations. The 1988 Act redefined housing associations as non-public bodies, permitting access to private finance, which was a strong motivation for transfer as public sector borrowing had been severely constrained. These new housing associations were also the providers of most new public-sector housing. By 2003 36.5% of the social rented housing stock was held by housing associations.
Housing associations may be constituted using various forms of legal entity. Many are industrial and provident societies, but there are also trusts, co-operatives and companies. They may or may not be registered charities.
Registered social landlord (RSL) is the technical name for social landlords that in England were formerly registered with the Housing Corporation, or in Wales with the Welsh Government. From 2010 to 2012, associations were termed registered providers under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, irrespective of status (private, public, for-profit or not-for-profit). As of 2012, the terms registered social landlord and private registered providers of social housing are both used as alternative names for housing association.
Housing associations are generally considered as private entities in that they are not owned or directly controlled by the state. This status, however, has been challenged by a number of legal rulings in the last few years. In 2004 the British government accepted an EU ruling that considered housing associations as public bodies for the purposes of procurement.
More recently, the English High Court in Weaver v. London and Quadrant Housing Trust  has ruled that housing associations were public authorities and as a result could be subject to judicial review in certain circumstances. The court stated that the housing association sector was 'permeated by state control and influence with a view to meeting the Government's aims for affordable housing, and in which RSLs work side by side with, and can in a very real sense be said to take the place of, local authorities'.
This issue has wider political significance since housing associations' borrowing (which stood at approximately £30 billion in 2006) does not currently contribute to the UK's public sector borrowing requirement, the control of which is both a stated government objective and part of the EU's criteria for membership of the European single currency.
A feature of housing associations is that, although the larger housing associations usually have paid staff, a committee or board of management made up of volunteers, or paid non-executive members, has overall responsibility for the work of the organisation. A board might include residents, representatives from local authorities and community groups, business people and politicians. There are more than 30,000 voluntary board members running housing associations throughout England.
Housing associations' day-to-day activities are funded by rent and service charges payments made by, or on behalf of, those living in its properties. In this sense, housing associations are run as commercial entities and the majority do not depend on donations for their general activities.
New housing generally receives economic subsidies, the source of which will depend on where the association is based:In England, housing associations are funded and regulated by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the exception being funding in London which from April 2012 is the responsibility of the Greater London Authority. The HCA's predecessor until 2008 was the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation's regulatory role was split out to a separate body from 2010, the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), but merged again into the HCA from April 2012.
In Northern Ireland, the same role is carried out by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
In Scotland, this function is fulfilled by the Scottish Government.
In Wales, the regulation and funding of housing associations is carried out by the Welsh Government.
Subsidies for new homes (often termed 'social housing grant') amount to sizeable public investments. In its 2008–11 prospectus, the Housing Corporation stated that in the three-year period to 2011 investment would be "at least £8 billion". The majority of this would go to housing associations for use in development projects. Since 2003, in an effort to seek greater value for money, much of the funding by the Housing Corporation for new house building has been channelled to fewer than 80 "developing housing associations" that have achieved "partner status" through Partner Programme Agreements. Long term lender option borrower option loans (LOBOs) have been taken out in the past by housing associations.
Housing associations borrow money to pay for new homes and improvements. After the Housing Act 1988, the proportion of the cost of new homes met by capital grant was scaled back by the Government, so borrowing became the primary source of funding for investment. Much of this was simply borrowed from banks and building societies, but after the late-2000s financial crisis these institutions ceased to offer long-term loans, so developing associations are increasingly turning to corporate bonds to raise funds for expansion.
The HCA implemented a new Government policy of "affordable rents" for its 2011–15 funding round, requiring associations to set rents at up to 80% of market rents, so that less up-front capital subsidy would be required. In September 2013, a group of London Boroughs initiated a judicial review to challenge this policy.
There are four industry bodies representing housing associations working in the UK, each covering a respective country. They are:England – National Housing Federation (NHF)
Scotland – Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA)
Wales – Community Housing Cymru
Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA)
The NHF (formerly the National Federation of Housing Associations) claimed that at the start of 2003 they had around 1400 non-profit housing organisations in their membership, owning or managing approximately 1.8 million homes across England.
In the 2000s, some larger associations formed regional clubs for purposes including lobbying government bodies. The G15 group of London’s largest associations was followed by East Seven in East Anglia.