Social housing providers feature as important social economy actors across Europe. There is a variety of forms that social housing organisations can take, such as cooperatives, non-profit organisations and (semi)governmental organisations. Some of these housing organisations can be described with traditional ‘state’, ‘market’ or ‘civil society’ labels, but many correspond in fact to hybrid organisational forms, encompassing characteristics of state, market and civil society organisations. This group could be referred to as social enterprises. However, the concept of social enterprise in the context of housing has been poorly defined. It is unclear what the characteristics and leading principles of social enterprise in housing are and if and how these are reflected in European housing organisations. Therefore, this paper aims to come to a definition that is generally applicable to social housing providers in Europe. To this end, it attempts to clarify their specific position between market, society and public interest. Moreover, the paper discusses the common characteristics of the variety of organisations providing housing and housing-related services throughout the EU, with a view to better identify social enterprises providing social housing and to explore their added value. The conceptual discussion builds on general literature on social entrepreneurship and presents a brief review of international developments. Starting from an institutional perspective, the discussion leads to the argument that tight institutional definitions could exclude many organisations that in fact do/can use principles of social enterprise. The argument then turns to an organisational perspective stating that social enterprise can also be seen as a way of operation in which social housing organisations employ business principles and involvement of civil society in the interest of their public objectives. The resulting institutional and organisational definition will be tested on characteristics of housing organisations from various European countries. Thereby, the paper aims to fill a gap in knowledge in this field and help in taking a step towards a common definition and understanding of the concept in the housing context.
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