This evaluation of social housing finance in Europe is placed in the context of the purpose of social housing, the sources of funds and the institutions that are used for provision. The effectiveness of social housing finance systems and the transferability of European approaches to other countries, particularly the developing world, are discussed. The analysis shows that an examination of the appropriate standards for decent housing and the barriers to market sector institutions meeting housing needs can usefully be investigated before alternative new institutions are created. If existing institutions are judged to be capable of delivery but financial incentives are inadequate, the focus should be on the best form of incentives. The use of a contractual form of provision is seen as a useful means of tying incentives to supply and potentially promoting good value for money. It is argued that the European experience shows that housing finance that supports low income households is likely to involve a subsidy and that some form of subsidy and thus some form of transfer of resources into social housing will be needed if social housing is to have a social purpose that includes meeting housing needs as opposed to satisfying housing demand.