They first appeared in the second half of the 19th 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.
Housing associations increased in importance over the last decades of the 20th century due to reforms to council housing brought in by the Thatcher government, when rules were introduced that prevented councils subsidising their housing from local taxes. This, combined with cost-cutting initiatives in local government led to many councils transfering their housing stock to housing associations. Housing associations are now the providers of most new public housing in the UK.
The National Housing Federation (NHF), formerly the National Federation of Housing Associations is the industry body that represents housing associations in the United Kingdom. At the start of 2003 they had around 1400 non-profit housing organisations in their membership, owning or managing approximately 1.8 million homes.
Legally housing associations are Industrial and Provident societies.