Public Housing Guide

The Public Housing program provides affordable rental apartment communities and scattered homes and apartments (known as “scattered sites”) that give rental assistance to participants.

The organizations that administer this program and own the properties are called Public Housing Agencies (commonly called housing authorities), which are funded and overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are more than 3,300 housing authorities nationwide that offer Public Housing assistance for a specific jurisdiction, whether it is a city, county, or region of multiple areas.

Called the Total Tenant Payment (TTP), program participants pay either:

  1. 10% of their monthly income (gross income minus exclusions)
  2. 30% of their monthly adjusted income (gross income minus exclusions and deductions)
  3. A minimum rent of between $0 and $50 established by each housing authority independently.

Who qualifies for Public Housing?

Basic Requirements

  • Applicants must be at least 18 years old, and a United States citizen or a noncitizen who has eligible immigration status.
    • Eligible immigration status includes a lawful permanent resident; registry immigrant; refugee or asylee; conditional entrant; parolee; withholding grantee; person granted 1986 amnesty status; resident of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, or Guam; victim or relative of a victim of trafficking.
  • Single persons are eligible, as well as households with or without children.
    • HUD commonly refers to a household as a “family,” so don’t let that term confuse you. A “family” can consist of one or more person, and having children is not required to be considered a “family.”
  • You can apply to most nationwide waiting lists, regardless of where you currently live.
    • Some waiting lists may have restrictions allowing only local residents to apply.

Income Eligibility

  • The household must make less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the area where the voucher will be used (this is known as the income limit).
    • The AMI for your current area is not used for income qualification.
    • The income limit amount increases for each additional member of the household (including children).
  • A household’s AMI is determined by its gross income, which is the amount of money received before subtracting taxes and other expenses.
  • Employment income earned by household members younger than 18 years old is not included.

How do I know my income limit?

Usually the housing authority will provide a chart of the income limits for each household size.

If you can't find the income limits, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Affordable Housing Online home page.
  2. Type your city or county in the search bar on the top of this page, and select your area in the drop down menu that appears.
  3. Scroll down to the chart in the “Income Qualifications for HUD Rental Assistance” section.

Restrictions and Preferences

Preferences

Many waiting lists have preferences. Applicants who qualify for waiting list preferences will receive assistance before applicants who do not. Applicants who do not qualify for preferences will usually have a longer wait to receive assistance. Examples of preferences that may appear on a waiting list include the elderly, persons with disabilities, and local residents. More information about preferences can be found here. It is important to know that preferences are not requirements. Applicants may still apply, even if they do not qualify for any preferences.

Restrictions

Sometimes, a waiting list may only be open for applicants of a specific demographic, such as homeless or disabled persons. If a housing authority has restrictions for a Public Housing opening, the information must be approved by HUD and detailed on the office’s Annual Plan, along with a statement in the public notice.

Common Disqualifiers

  • HUD Violations
    • A household will be disqualified if any member:
      • Has been evicted from HUD housing in the last five years.
      • Had assistance terminated by a housing authority for any reason.
      • Owes money to a housing authority.
  • Criminal Record
    • Having a criminal record may make it difficult for a person to receive housing, but it does not automatically disqualify them.
    • A person with an arrest record, but no conviction, has a greater chance of qualifying over someone who has been convicted of their offense.
    • Felons face much greater difficulty in qualifying, especially if it was a violence or drug related sentence.
    • Applicants with a history of drug use, alcohol abuse, violence, and other criminal activity that would threaten other residents may have difficulty qualifying.
    • Each housing authority operates differently, but may allow persons with a criminal record to qualify based on the length of time since the offense occurred, and the severity of the crime.
    • Persons on any state lifetime sex offender registry are ineligible.
    • Recent convictions may deem a household ineligible.
    • Any person who has been evicted from federally assisted housing in the past three years for drug-related criminal activity would be denied, unless special circumstances are met
      • The household member who engaged in the criminal activity must either successfully complete a supervised drug rehabilitation program approved by the housing authority, or be removed from the household. Even then, it is up to the housing authority's discretion to approve these households.
  • False Information
    • Be truthful with the information you write on an application.
    • Putting false information on the application may not only disqualify you, but also get you in legal trouble.
    • If you are unsure about what to write down in a section of the application, contact the housing office.

How Do I Find an Open Public Housing Waiting List?

Waiting lists are operated by the Public Housing Agency (or housing authority) that manages the Public Housing program. Sometimes a local agency will partner with a housing authority, and operate the Public Housing program and its waiting list on behalf of the housing authority.

You can only apply to a waiting list if it's open for application submissions. Housing authorities open and close waiting lists for application submissions periodically. A waiting list may be open for a single day, or for several years. Usually, waiting lists are open for more than one day.

Visit Affordable Housing Online

Sign up to Affordable Housing Online’s email alerts.

You can sign up to receive waiting list alerts by email here.

Contact a Housing Authority.

Housing authorities are required by HUD to release a public notice announcing the waiting list opening. It's beneficial to know how announcements are made, especially if there's no website to visit. Contact a housing authority, or visit its website to find out how it announces waiting list openings.

You can find a directory of housing authority contact information here.

How Do I Apply to a Public Housing Waiting List?

Applications must be submitted to the the Public Housing Agency (or housing authority) that manages the Public Housing program. Sometimes a local agency will partner with a housing authority, and operate the HCV program and its waiting list on behalf of the housing authority.

Obtain the application.

  • After finding an open waiting list on Affordable Housing Online, the Public Housing Agency pages provide details on how to get an application for open waiting lists.
  • Applications are usually available online, by mail, or in the housing authority's office. Housing authority public notices and websites will state the methods on how to apply. The application must be obtained per the housing office’s instructions. For example, if the application must be completed online only, paper applications will not be available.
    • Reasonable Accommodation. The only exception to this rule is if a disabled applicant requires a reasonable accommodation to apply. Besides reasonable accommodations, if an applicant cannot complete the application on their own, they may have another person (like a social worker) complete the application on their behalf.
    • Online applications.
      • If the application is online, and an applicant does not have access to the Internet, they can use a friend or family member's computer/device, or one at a local library. Housing offices may also have computers on-site, but the amount of computers available is sometimes limited, and applicants may have to wait in line.
      • Online applications may require the applicant to create a free account through an online portal, and/or have a valid email address. If you do not have an email address, you can create one for free through providers such as Google. Keep your email account information in a safe, easy to access place.
  • Do not pay for an application. It is against HUD policy for housing authorities to charge for a Section 8 or Public Housing application. If someone is charging a fee for a Section 8 or Public Housing application, it is either violating federal law, or a scam.
  • If information on how to apply to a housing authority’s waiting list is not provided, contact the housing office for assistance.

Complete the application.

The first application you will complete is a preliminary, or pre-application. Pre-applications sometimes do not ask for all information required to receive housing assistance. More information may be required to submit after the pre-application.

  • Most pre-applications require at least:
    • Applicant's first and last name
    • Applicant's date of birth
    • Applicant's Social Security Number or Alien ID
    • Gross income of all household members, including children.
      • Employment income earned by household members younger than 18 years old is not included.
  • Other applicant information that may be asked on a pre-application includes:
    • Current mailing and/or email address
    • Phone number
    • Gender
    • Disability status
    • Race and ethnicity
    • Housing history
    • Criminal history
  • Some applications are only one page, while others have multiple pages. Other information that is usually required includes the applicant’s mailing and/or email address, the applicant’s phone number, housing history, criminal history, and confirmation of preferences (if applicable).

Complete the application per the housing office’s instructions. The office may require the entire application or specific sections to be filled out, or it will be rejected. Some offices will return the application and require you to complete the missing information, but others will simply terminate the application.

Submit the application.

  • The application must be submitted per the housing office’s instructions, or it will be disqualified.
    • For example, if the application can only be submitted online, paper applications will be rejected. Or, if the application can only be submitted in person, mailed applications will be rejected.
  • Applications submitted outside of the required date and time will be disqualified.
    • For example, if an application must be submitted by 5:00 pm, applications submitted at 5:01 pm or later will be rejected. Or, if a mailed application must be postmarked by January 1st, those that are postmarked January 2nd or later will be rejected.
  • For almost all waiting list openings, multiple application submissions from the same household will be rejected.
    • Depending on the housing office's policy, multiple application submissions may deem the entire household ineligible.

What Do I Do After Applying to a Public Waiting List?

Wait for your application to be processed.

Once your application has been submitted, it can take between a couple of weeks and a couple of months for offices to process applications. This depends on the resources available to review applications. Usually, online applications are processed more quickly than paper applications. The application or public notice about the waiting list opening may have information on when waiting list status will be available, and how to find out your status.

Confirm your waiting list status.

  • Usually, the housing office will confirm if they have been placed on the waiting list by asking applicants to check online, or by mailing letters to applicants. 
    • Some offices that mail letters to applicants will only notify those who have been placed on the waiting list.
  • Selected applicants will be placed on the waiting list either by date and time the application is received by the housing office, or by random lottery.
    • If preferences apply, they can significantly affect how high or low you are placed on the waiting list.
  • If placed on the waiting list, keep a record of it, along with any other relevant information (including housing office, login credentials, a confirmation number, and your position on the waiting list).
  • If not placed on the waiting list, there could be a number of reasons why, even if you were qualified.
    • Many applicants get rejected because of the high demand for housing assistance, despite being eligible for the program. For example:
      • If a housing office is placing 1,000 applicants on the waiting list by date and time, and 2,500 people apply, those who submit the application late may be denied because all spots were filled before the office got to their application.
      • If a housing office is placing a number of applicants on the waiting list by random lottery, an applicant may be denied because they were not chosen by the lottery system. If you were not placed on the waiting list, the housing authority is required to provide the reason why, along with information about requesting an informal review.

Estimate your wait time.

Once you are on a waiting list, your wait time varies greatly depending on the office you applied through. Because of the high demand of affordable housing, and comparatively low supply, it is not rare to be on a waiting list for several years. Generally, large metropolitan areas have long waiting lists, while lower populated areas have shorter waiting lists.

  • Contact the housing office you applied through to find out if a representative can estimate the current length of the waiting list. If the office cannot make an estimate, ask how you can access its Annual Plan. This document, which is updated yearly, may have information about the current number of households on the waiting list, and the office's annual turnover rate.
    • You can use simple math to estimate the length of the waiting list based on these numbers. For example, if there are 1,000 households on the waiting list, and the annual turnover rate is 200 households, calculate (1,000 ÷ 200), which is 5. It would take that office about five years to serve all households on that waiting list.
      • Not all housing authorities provide both pieces of information on their Annual Plan, and sometimes this document is not easily available.
      • This calculation does not take factors into consideration such as annual waiting list purges and adjusted turnover rates, so it should be used as a rough estimate.

Stay in contact with the housing office.

  • Find out how to periodically check your waiting list status with an office.
    • Usually, this will either be done online, by phone, or at the office. Some offices are unable to provide your specific position on the waiting list, but will confirm if you are still on the waiting list.
  • If any of your application information changes (such as contact information, income, and household members), contact the housing office immediately.
    • In the case that the office sends a notice that does not get returned, or if application information is out of date, your application may be terminated from the waiting list. Contact the office you applied through to find out how to officially update application information.
  • Reply immediately to notices sent to you that require a response.
    • Housing offices periodically send notices to all persons on the waiting list, asking if they would like to remain on the waiting list. Applicants who do not respond within the given time frame will be terminated from the waiting list. This is known as purging, and is done to process applicants as efficiently as possible. Follow the specific instructions on the notice, or your application may be terminated.
  • Don’t forget that if you are applying online, housing authorities will usually contact you using the email address you used to apply.
    • If you don’t receive the email or don’t have access when they send a correspondence, you may be removed from the waiting list. Always make sure you are using an email address you get mail at regularly and know you will have access to years from now.

Attend final eligibility interview.

  • Once you reach the top of the waiting list, the office will require a final application to be completed, along with an in-person eligibility interview.
    • The office will either require all household members, all adult household members, or only the applicant to be present.
    • The in-person interview is required, and you must attend at the scheduled date and time, so if you apply for a waiting list not close to your home, plan accordingly.

Move into offered unit.

After being approved for the Public Housing program, you will be able to move into the unit the housing authority has approved for you. You will not be able to move from this unit and keep the rental assistance.

Housing authorities will examine the income of Public Housing participants every two years. The household’s average income for the last two years must be below the area’s 120% Area Median Income (AMI) income limit. If a household is over-income, they will not be required to move out. But, they must either pay Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the unit, or the subsidy amount that the housing authority received from HUD for the unit.