A guide on using email addresses in the housing sector

The main points of this post are available in a video – click here to view the 4 minute email marketing video.

With literally thousands of customer email addresses at their fingertips, it’s easy for housing providers to think that a quick email to everyone about their new employment support service is OK; it’s not marketing because it’s a free service, right? Not necessarily and getting it wrong could be costly. Here, Clare Paterson, data protection consultant specialising in the social housing sector gives us the lowdown on what you need to consider when it comes to using your email data lawfully.

Housing associations collect a huge amount of email addresses from customers and potential customers over time and it’s often collected in lots of different ways. It’s likely the business will then want to use these emails to communicate about services such as money management, reminders of rent holidays, or about their latest shared ownership scheme. But can you?  The short answer is no, you simply can’t put all of these activities into one pot. The good news is though, that it doesn’t mean you can’t email your customers.

The starting point to understanding what you can do is to assess both the purpose and content of the email you’re looking to send. This will indicate whether it’s a ‘service email’ and regulated by the GDPR alone, or a ‘marketing email’ which is regulated by both the GDPR and the direct marketing emails legislation PECR (the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations). This informs whether you need consent to send that email.

The difficulty that many values-led organisations, such as housing associations and charities have is that whilst a lot of their messages don’t feel like marketing, as they’re not selling anything, they may in fact be categorised as marketing emails in the eyes of the law. Here’s a quick overview, to help you decide:

 A Service EmailA Marketing Email


When the email is related to the contract you have with a customer (in housing terms this is the tenancy agreement) it is likely to be a service email and not classed as marketing.



If it doesn’t relate directly to your contract with the customer there’s a pretty good chance that it is in fact marketing.



Anything necessary for the contract between the housing association and customer. So for example: Your offices are closed; there’s a rent holiday coming up; messages relating to health and safety like a legally required gas check; or there’s a change to business structure, such as a merger with another organisation.

Feedback or market research emails aren’t marketing emails either.

A more obvious example here would be marketing your shared ownership homes, but it also includes things like telling customers en masse about your money advice service, a general health and wellbeing campaign, or a fundraising campaign.


What you need to consider

This type of email is regulated by the GDPR, so first and foremost you have to identify the lawful basis for doing it, which is likely to be that it’s necessary for the contract, or possibly your legitimate interests. If you’re relying on legitimate interests, document your assessment and allow recipients to object to receiving service information via email if there is another way to provide it.

You also have to ensure that people know what you’re doing with their email address, you send messages securely and that if you’re sending via a third party that you have the appropriate contract clauses in place with your provider first.

This type of email is regulated by both the GDPR and PECR, so you need to consider everything that is listed for a service email, but in addition and importantly the only applicable legal basis is consent (to the standard of consent required by the GDPR) to send that type of email and you must include an option to opt out. Most email services will include an ‘unsubscribe’ button on every email.

Are there any exceptions to needing consent for marketing emails?

There are two instances where you don’t need to obtain consent before sending marketing emails:

  • When the ‘soft opt-in’ or ‘default consent’ applies. This applies when an individual has bought something from you or entered into negotiations to buy something from you. For housing associations this will predominantly relate to shared ownership sales, where you are then are able to send the buyer other similar marketing messages, but still with the opt-out option at the point you collect their email address and on every subsequent email.
  • You’re emailing an individual at a business. PECR does not apply to ‘business to business’ (B2B) emails. You can run a stakeholder email campaign without the recipients’ explicit consent, however you must offer a clear opt-out option.

Is there a way around it?

This is the burning question that many sales and marketing managers in housing associations have and I’ve been asked if marketing can be snuck into a service or feedback email and the answer is clear – no; the only real way to do it is to manage consent properly. (Please don’t copy Deliveroo – putting ‘this is a service message’ at the top of a marketing email does NOT make it true…)

It’s easy to say ‘manage consent’ but hard to do, as email addresses are likely to have been collected over many years and in different ways, but if you want to send emails, text or call customers about anything other than a necessary service message it’s likely to be marketing and you will need to revisit your data and obtain consent.

Unfortunately you can’t email people to gain that consent, as this is seen as marketing in itself – however you can obtain consent through awareness campaigns and using your existing customer touch-points; in contact centres when customers call in, pop ups on your website, posting on social media and by post.

Before you launch a consent campaign, be clear what you are asking for consent for – what types of messages do you plan to send and how frequently? It can also be beneficial, although not legally necessary, to get a double opt-in on email sign-ups so you know it’s the individual signing themselves up, and it may also mean marketing emails are less likely to end up in spam folders.

Penalties for breaching the regulations are tough, with a maximum fine of £500,000 for those who are found guilty. And we’ve recently seen cases coming though the ICO where companies have breached the PECR rules when being (shall we say) ‘over-enthusiastic’ when trying to capitalise on the Covid-19 pandemic. One saw a Manchester-based lead generation firm fined £80k for sending texts to people that asked whether they needed financial help as a result of redundancy or furlough. Whilst another saw a Lincolnshire mortgage broker fined £50k for contacting people about a drop in Buy-to-Let interest rates.

It’s worth noting that even if you use a third-party supplier to send your marketing messages on your behalf and they email individuals that haven’t consented to receive your marketing emails, you are still likely to be held responsible by the ICO, as the instigator of the messages. Buying in email lists is also fraught with problems.

Next Steps

Although it can be frustrating to be restricted from sending communications to your customers when you think they could benefit from it, the regulations are there to protect us all as consumers and prevent us from receiving messages we haven’t signed up for.

The key to using your email data lawfully is securing clear consent; as you gather new data and/or by revisiting your existing lists.

Subscribe to our mailing list below and access our free Lawful Emails Cheat Sheet, which includes clear and practical roadmaps for different types of emails.

If you have any questions about data protection, book a free call!

Clare draws on over 20 years of experience in risk management and quality assurance, including ten years in data protection, to provide clear and practical advice and training.

Don’t tell everyone (shh!) but Clare’s favourite sector is social housing, having worked in a large housing association for 12 years, although she loves to support all values-led organisations.