How the waiting list works for social housing

Council housing departments, housing associations and housing cooperatives don't all decide who should have priority on their housing waiting lists in the same way. Many have a points system: the more points you have, the higher up the waiting list you'll be. This page explains ways in which councils and RSLs can allocate points and determine priority.

On this page, the term 'registered social landlords', or RSL, is used to cover both housing associations and housing cooperatives.

What is an allocation policy?

A council or RSL's allocation policy is the set of rules they use to decide how to give out their housing. Each council and RSL has its own rules for allocating housing. Some of the rules are based on the law, and others are up to the individual council or RSL to decide. These rules cover:

  • who can join the housing waiting list

  • how the council or RSL decides who gets priority on the waiting list

  • transfers and exchanges of council housing.

The council or RSL must stick to these rules for letting their houses and can't make decisions according to other rules which aren't written down.

How do I find out what a council or RSL's allocation policy is?

Allocation policy rules must be written down and made available to the public:

  • A copy of the council's rules should be available in all housing department offices.

  • A copy of a housing association or housing co-op's rules should be available at their head office, and also at the head office of the council.

Who has priority on the housing waiting list?

By law, there are three main groups of people who must be given priority (or 'reasonable preference') on council and RSL housing waiting lists.

1. People living in unsuitable accommodation

Your home may not be suitable to live in because it:

  • has a bad problem with rising or penetrating damp

  • is not structurally stable, for example it's subsiding

  • doesn't have adequate ventilation, natural and artificial light or heating

  • doesn't have an adequate supply of fresh water

  • doesn't have a sink with hot and cold water

  • doesn't have an indoor toilet

  • doesn't have a fixed bath or shower and wash basin with hot and cold water

  • doesn't have a good drainage and sewerage system

  • doesn't have satisfactory cooking facilities

  • doesn't have an adequate entrance

  • is unsatisfactory in some other way (the law doesn't define what 'unsatisfactory' means so it is up to the individual council or RSL to decide).

2. People whose homes are overcrowded or who have large families

Your home may be overcrowded if there are not enough rooms or space for the number of people who live there. The law doesn't say how many people there are in a 'large family', so the council or RSL must decide themselves.

3. People who are homeless or threatened with homelessness

This includes more than just people who are living on the street. It also includes people who have no rights to live in their current home, or whose homes are unsuitable for them to live in.

Find out more about the definition of homelessness.

What else could a council or RSL take into account?

You may be awarded extra priority points in the following situations:

  • Length of time on the list - If you are applying for a transfer, you may get extra points if you have been in your current council, housing associate or co-op home for a long time.

  • Tied accommodation - your accommodation was provided as part of your job, but you have now left your job. This includes people leaving the armed forces and the police or who worked for the Coastguard Service, Customs and Excise or the Lighthouse Board.

  • Medical needs - you need to be rehoused due to specific medical needs, for example because:

  • you are disabled and need to live somewhere that's specially adapted for you

  • you want to move closer to a hospital or clinic where you receive regular treatment.

  • Social needs - you need to be rehoused because of social needs, for example because:

  • you look after an elderly or disabled relative

  • you wish to move nearer someone who can look after you

  • you wish to become a foster parent but need a bigger or more suitable home for children

  • you have a previous connection with the area (for example, you used to live there or have family there) and need to move back

  • you need to move closer to your place of work.

  • Social work - you have been or are being looked after by the social work department in some way, for example because:

  • you were in care

  • you are elderly

  • you are leaving an institution such as a hospital or prison

  • you have other community care needs.

  • Harassment - you have suffered domestic abuse or racial or sexual harassment in your current home.

  • Under occupying your current home - you live in a large house and want to move to a smaller, more economical home.

  • Shared living space - you have to share amenities such as a toilet, kitchen or living room with another household, or you live in a bedsit.

  • Mobile homes - You live in a mobile home which is overcrowded or lacks basic amenities such as hot water, a toilet or shower.

These are only examples of points categories. Some councils or housing associations may not use all the categories listed above, or may have other, additional categories.

Things councils and RSLs can't take into account

There are some things councils and RSLs are not allowed to take into account when allocating housing. These are:

  • How long you've lived in the area - you don't need to live locally to apply for accommodation

  • Rent Arrears - relating to a property where you lived but were not the actual tenant

  • Debt - which you did owe as a tenant, but have since paid off, which you accrued as a tenant but which are no more than a twelfth of the full annual amount payable (for example, one month's rent arrears), or debts you owe your landlord but have agreed to pay off over time according to a payment plan (you must have been paying off the debt for at least three months and be continuing to make the payments for this to apply)

  • Council tax arrears - any debts owed by you or someone you will be living with which are not related to your tenancy 

  • Age - as long as you are 16 years old or over, unless you need to be allocated housing suitable for a particular age group, for example if you an older person in need of sheltered housing or a young person in need of supported accommodation, in which case the council or housing association must take your age into account

  • Income - your income or the income of anyone in your family

  • Property - any property or goods you or your family owns.

Restrictions the council or housing association can't impose

There are certain restrictions that councils and housing associations are not allowed to impose before offering you housing. They cannot tell you that:

  • you have to be on the waiting list for a minimum amount of time before you can be offered housing (although you may need to be a tenant for a certain length of time before you can apply for a transfer)

  • you have to get a divorce or judicial separation from your partner before you can be offered housing

  • you won't be offered housing if you're going to be living with a particular person.

Discrimination and equal opportunities

It is illegal for a council or housing association to discriminate against you on the grounds of race, sex or disability.

Councils and housing associations should also have an equal opportunities policy. This means they should not discriminate against you because of:

  • the legal status of your relationship

  • your age

  • your sexual orientation or gender identity

  • your language

  • your social background

  • your beliefs or opinions, for example your religious or political beliefs.

If you think the council is discriminating against you, you can take action about this - read the section on discrimination and harassment to find out more.

Choice based letting schemes

If your council operates a choice based letting scheme (see applying for housing), it should take into account the same things when deciding who has priority.

If you need to talk to someone, we’ll do our best to help. Get Help

Last updated: 25 May 2017

Housing laws differ between Scotland and England.

This content applies to Scotland only.

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