Setting Priorities

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Last Updated December 2009

How are preferences and priorities set?

State public housing and vouchers

Priorities for state-funded housing are set by statute. These priorities apply to state public housing, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), and the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), and are required across the state.44 See What priorities are required in state-funded housing? for a list of these priorities.

Each housing authority, however, has the ability to define what it considers to be an emergency priority for its Emergency Case Plan.45 The Emergency Case Plan must include priorities for the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and medical emergencies. The governing board of each housing authority makes the final decision about what its priorities and Emergency Case Plan will be. It must then get this plan approved by DHCD.

Federal public housing and vouchers

Preferences for federal public housing and Section 8 are set by each housing authority.46 Each year the housing authority must create an Annual Plan that includes its priorities and preferences. It must be done in cooperation with federal public housing and Section 8 tenants, usually through the Resident Advisory Board and asks for input from community organizations.

Multifamily housing

For federal multifamily housing, each owner must adopt a written tenant selection plan. The owner must inform you of available preferences and must give you an opportunity to show that you qualify for a preference. An owner must get HUD approval to use any residency preference. An owner may adopt preferences required by state or local law (for example, a veterans preference) only if they are consistent with HUD requirements and have been approved by HUD. An owner can choose to rank or combine preferences.47 HUD does not mandate any tenant or public involvement in the development of owner preferences; however, residents or advocacy groups may wish to push owners to have certain preferences.

For MassHousing developments, if the owner wishes to adopt preferences which are in addition to those required by MassHousing guidelines, it must seek MassHousing approval.48 Here again, there is no requirement for tenant or public involvement, but tenants or advocates may be successful in pushing for certain preferences that benefit low-income applicants.

Can I have a voice in how preferences and priorities are set?

Because qualifying for a priority or preference is so important in getting public or subsidized housing, if you are applying for housing or if you are already on the waiting list, your voice is important in how priorities are set. There are several ways that you can make your ideas known. For example, if you are applying with a particular need that is not already granted a priority by a housing authority, you can work with others to have a new priority adopted. It is generally more effective when you work on this together with others in your community, such as individuals or agencies representing people with similar needs, so that you speak for as large a group as possible.

State housing programs

For state housing programs, the board of commissioners of a housing authority decides how to define its own Emergency Case Plan. These board meetings are open to the public.49 The time and location of housing authority board meetings are public information which should be given to you upon request. You should also check your local newspaper for legal notices of upcoming public hearings on this issue.

You can attend a board meeting and urge passage of a new emergency priority. Hearing live testimony from you and others in the same situation about why you urgently need housing and why you should be given preference over other low-income families and individuals can be extremely effective. Your participation may help a housing authority decide to define an emergency applicant in a different way.

For example, all state emergency case plans give priority to victims of domestic violence. However, this preference is sometimes interpreted to apply only to applicants who are displaced due to domestic violence (go to a shelter or do not have stable housing) or who are in danger from the abuser if they remain in their homes. You could ask the board to expand its domestic violence preference to include victims facing eviction for nonpayment of rent as a result of the loss of the abuser's income.

Federal programs, including Section 8 vouchers

For federal public housing and the Section 8 program, each year the housing authority must create an Annual Plan that includes its priorities and preferences. It must be done in cooperation with its federal public housing and Section 8 tenants, usually through the Resident Advisory Board. Working with this advisory group is an excellent way to influence policy decisions.

For example, if the housing authority has a priority for working families, you may be able to convince it to include in this category people who are in job training programs. Even if the housing authority does not agree to add a new priority category, it may agree to expand the definition of an existing priority to include your situation.

In addition, each housing authority's local preferences must be consistent with a document known as the Consolidated Plan.50 Most cities and towns are required by law to develop a Consolidated Plan which includes a lot of information about the housing needs of residents in the area. You can go to the city or town planning department or the city or town clerk and ask for a copy of the Consolidated Plan. It is also usually available at the local public library. This plan is important. For example, if the Consolidated Plan shows that there are a large number of people with disabilities in need of housing in your city, and your city has not adopted a preference for people with disabilities, you may be able to convince the housing authority that it needs to adopt this type of preference. Often the Consolidated Plan will demonstrate that the community has a large homeless population, which can be used to convince a housing authority to add a homeless preference to their categories.

It is probably a good idea to contact your local Legal Services office or other housing advocates to work with you to make sure that you understand the priorities in your area.


44 G.L. c. 121B, § 32; State Public Housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09; MRVP: 760 C.M.R. § 49.04(1 AHVP: 760 C.M.R. § 53.04(1).

45 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.09(1)(d) and 5.11.

46 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8 vouchers: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207.

47 Section 8 project-based: 24 C.F.R. § 5.655(b)(2) and (c Federal multifamily housingHUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4.

48 MHFA Model Tenant Selection Plan REV 9/09 § E, available through MassHousing.

49 G.L. c. 39, §§ 23A-23C; G.L. c. 66, §10. In a few instances, housing authorities do not have a Board of Commissioners.

50 24 C.F.R. § 903.15.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

Download the Chapter

Ask a Law Librarian

If it's
9am and 4pm