Unemployed council and housing association tenants should seek work or face losing their homes, housing minister Caroline Flint has suggested.
She said new applicants for social housing might sign "commitment contracts" pledging to seek employment.
In a speech, Ms Flint said: "Social housing should be based around the principle of something for something."
Shadow housing minister Grant Shapps said the idea was "meaningless" as it could not be legally enforced.
In her first speech as housing minister Ms Flint told the Fabian Society that she wanted to "begin a debate" about how to best serve the needs of people who live in social housing.
She said: "Social housing will always have a strong role in supporting the most vulnerable - the elderly, those with disabilities.
But there are also many who are currently unemployed who could find work with the right training and support."
Ms Flint said that a family applying for a home could be offered "new opportunities linked to employment and training."
She suggested that a "voluntary contract" would set out the opportunities on offer, "underscoring the commitment of the tenants to self-improvement."
A spokesman from Ms Flint's Department of Communities and Local Government would not confirm whether this meant that tenants who then broke their contracts would face eviction.
"The minister made it quite clear she is starting a debate, and nothing is definite at the moment," he said.
Ms Flint said Labour wanted to break the link between social housing and long-term unemployment. She described "concentrations of deprivation and disadvantage - with long-term unemployment and some families without jobs for generations."
A report commissioned last year by her department suggested that half of all households paid for by benefits were without work, and many of these are under 25.
New statistics also reveal that the number of unemployed council tenants has risen by 20% to 55% since 1981.
It is understood that if the new contracts do become a reality, they would apply to new tenants at first - but if successful they could be extended to existing tenants.
Ms Flint's proposals were attacked by her political opponents as unworkable, and by others as unfair.
Conservative housing spokesman Grant Shapps said Ms Flint was trying to "grab the headlines" with proposals that could not be legally enforced.
"Ministers and local councils have a statutory duty to house homeless families with children and so they can't boot them out of their houses without then providing alternative accommodation," he said.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Every unemployed person should be made to look for work, or have work given to them
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents England's housing associations, said: "Such a policy would be unfair and impossible to enforce.
"Many of the jobs open to people, especially at the lower skills end, are insecure or temporary."
Housing charity Shelter's chief executive Adam Sampson said: "What is being proposed would destroy families and communities and add to the thousands who are already homeless.
'Insulting and stigmatising'
The Child Poverty Action Group called Caroline Flint's suggestions "insulting and stigmatising to people facing major barriers to employment".
"Years of expert warnings have recommended housing developments should be mixed, and it's time the Minister dusted the cobwebs off these reports instead of chasing headlines", CPAG chief executive Kate Green said.
The general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, said: "The right to a home is a fundamental right that should not be linked to employment status.
"A family already struggling on a low income should not face added insecurity and stress over their home because of unemployment."
But Ms Flint's proposals were supported by a centre-right think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS).
CPS spokeswoman Jill Kirby told the BBC that Ms Flint was "looking at a very small symptom of a much bigger problem.
"She should be persuading her Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Chancellor that a much bigger overhaul of our welfare system is needed.
"We've been left with a system that actually traps people on benefits."