For the first time since the 1960s, there are more people in England renting from private landlords than from councils or housing associations.
The English Housing Survey for 2011-12 shows that the rising number of private tenants, 3.84 million, outnumbered the 3.8 million in social housing.
The trend partly reflects the boom in buy-to-let ownership.
It also reflects increasing demand for rented homes from a rising population and those locked out of home ownership.
Campbell Robb, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, said: "This historic shift in our housing market is bad news for anyone struggling to find a decent and affordable home.
"With the security of home ownership or social renting harder to find than ever, more and more families have no choice but to live with the insecurity and expense of private renting.
"As saving for a home of their own becomes increasingly out of reach, many have no choice but to live in rented homes for years on end," he added.
The report, published by the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), pointed out that home-ownership, although still in decline, still accounted for roughly two-thirds of all homes in England.
"Owner occupation remained the largest tenure group with 14.4 million households, comprising around two-thirds (65%) of all households," it said.
"There has been a downward trend in the proportion of owner occupiers since the peak of 71% in 2003 but the proportion in 2011-12 was very similar to that in 2010-11," it added.
Simon Rubinsohn, chief economist at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), said these trends would persist in the coming years.
"The figures provide further evidence of the shift away from owner-occupation in favour of the rental sector," he said.
"Provisional data for the last financial year puts the proportion of households in their own property at the lowest point since 1987.
"Meanwhile, an increasing proportion of the population is turning to the private rented sector for shelter with the latest figures showing this form of tenure overtaking the social rented sector last year," he added.
Among the key findings of the latest EHS survey were that:
- Private renters were generally much younger than those in social housing. Half of private renters in England were under 35, but only 19% of social tenants were. Meanwhile 29% of social tenants were over 65, compared to just 8% of private tenants.
- Private tenants paid almost twice as much per week as social tenants: £164 per week as against £83.
- 64% of social households received housing benefit, but only 26% of private tenants did.
- 7% of socially rented homes were overcrowded and 6% of privately rented ones were.
- Under-occupation was much higher among owner occupiers : 49% as against 10% in the socially rented sector and 16% among private renters.
- Only 5% of all homes were damp, down from 13% in 1996.
The last time there was a switch in the balance between private renters and those in council or housing association homes was in the middle of the 1960s.
The post-war slum clearance programmes and the government inspired boom in council house building provided new homes to rent for millions of families.
In 1961, the declining number of private tenants in England still outnumbered the rising number of social tenants by 4.7 million to 3.2 million.
Ten years later, in 1971, the position had reversed and social tenants outnumbered renters in private accommodation by 4.6 million to 3.2 million.
The peak year for council or housing association tenancies was in 1981 when there were 5.6 million socially owned properties in England - most owned by local authorities.
Thanks to the policy of selling council houses, pioneered by the Conservative government in the 1980s, most council homes have now been sold.
In 2011, there were only 1.9 million council owned properties left in England, but 2.1 million homes owned by housing associations.