Too Many Empty Social Housing Units? Are Tenants Too Picky?

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The endless climb towards the head of a social housing waiting list. One slip, and you start again.

An article from Scotland and another from Ontario, Canada tell of different ways to manage waiting lists for social housing.

Both offer the right to refuse an offer of a tenancy. Both sought ways to reduce the refusals.

Ontario’s longstanding offer of up to three units has been dropped to one. A person offered a tenancy can refuse the offer and if they do, they are automatically removed from the waiting list. Oh, but they can start all over and apply again. One woman, who has special needs, has been on the waiting list for 17 years in London, Ontario. Her response to the new rule was, “I feel less of a person.”

In Scotland, housing workers are doubling down to work with people on waiting lists who are refusing housing. The housing workers inquire to find out why people are refusing offers and aligning future offers with what a person who is waiting has in mind. The number of refusals has started going down. This was reported by the Scottish Housing Regulator, following an investigation in the City of Glasgow.1

In London, Ontario, one of the waiting list managers says it will take a year before they know how the one chance rule will affect the waiting list. Another says the applicants should be more particular about what they are requesting.

The contrast in these two regional approaches is instructive for anyone concerned about a long waiting list. Ontario’s implies that by refusing, prospective tenants are being unreasonably picky. In Scotland, where people still have more than one choice, putting time into understanding what a prospective tenant wants and needs is paying off in fewer refusals.

Sources interviewed for the Ontario article say that more social housing is needed. London has 3,300 social housing units and an effective vacancy rate of 1%.2 It’s hard to see how one opportunity to refuse housing (or three for that matter) will help the 6,000 households on the waiting list to move more quickly. The Scottish Housing Regulator’s report is also calling more social housing, noting particular gaps in supply for large households and single people. These messages should not be lost on other jurisdictions that have long waiting lists.

Read more about implementing new rules to manage social housing waiting lists in Ontario at TVO: What new rules mean for Ontarians waiting for social housing

The Scottish Housing Regulator’s: Report on inquiry into Glasgow City Council’s services for people who are experiencing homelessness discusses Glasgow’s approach to shortening waiting list times in section 3.32 on page 12.


  1. Roles of the Scottish Housing Regulator include receiving and investigating complaints about about housing and homelessness services
  2. There are 130 vacant units, of which 92 are under repair.

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