Special Priorities

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Last Updated December 2009

For people facing domestic violence or violent crimes, is there a priority?

For most programs, the answer is yes. All housing programs funded by the state must give a priority to people facing abusive situations.24 This includes state public housing, MRVP, AHVP, and state multifamily subsidized housing. In these programs, abuse can be broader than domestic violence, and could include the sexual abuse of minors.

Congress has also encouraged—but not required—housing funded by the federal government to establish a priority for people facing domestic violence.25 Some housing authorities give people facing abusive situations or witnesses of violent crime priority for Section 8 vouchers because vouchers give you the ability to move to a new community and escape the violence.

Proof of abuse

Housing agencies and subsidized landlords may interpret requirements for this type of priority somewhat differently. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you apply for a priority based on domestic violence:

  • You will need to prove that you are a victim of domestic violence and that the abuse constitutes a direct threat to your life or safety. You can use a broad range of proofs, including:
    • Medical records;
    • Police reports, calls to the police, a log of police visits to your residence, tapes of officers responding to a call;
    • Letters from a counselor, if you attended counseling;
    • Statements or reports from clergy, social workers, or other social service providers;
    • Your own written statement describing injuries you have suffered, your fears, the effect of abuse on your family;
    • Criminal records if the batterer was arrested or convicted of domestic violence or destruction of your property;
    • Other evidence confirmed (corroborated) by law enforcement or domestic violence providers.26
  • It is not always necessary to have a restraining order against your batterer to prove domestic violence. This will depend on how the housing agency or subsidized owner has written the preference in their Tenant Selection Plans.
  • For most state programs, you will have to show that you took all reasonable steps to avoid the threat including seeking assistance through the courts, law enforcement, or other enforcement agencies.
  • If you have already moved out of the apartment because of abuse and are now homeless, in a shelter, or doubled-up with someone, you do not need to show that the abuse was ongoing. You should qualify for the preference as long as you moved out within a relatively short time after the abuse occurred. Some federal programs describe this as being involuntarily displaced, where you have the priority until you get housing under your own name that meets your household's needs.27
  • If you are still living in your apartment, you may need to show that the abuse is recent or ongoing, at least for federally funded housing programs.
  • A few housing authorities expressly provide for a domestic violence preference where a tenant is evicted due to non-payment of rent caused by loss of income from an abuser who is vacated from the household through a restraining order.
  • You may have to prove that the abuser lived in your household. This may be difficult if the abuser was not listed on the lease or did not pay rent.
  • Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to request a "reprisal preference." 

    If you fled the apartment which you shared with the abuser and the abuser has pursued you to a new address or is stalking you but you cannot prove this, you may have to request a preference under a category called "reprisal." In order to obtain this preference, you must show that you need to be relocated because you were a victim of or a witness to criminal activity, that you have cooperated in providing information about the crime to law enforcement officials, and that you are at risk of retaliation. A law enforcement official must verify this request. A victim-witness advocate at the local District Attorney's office may be helpful in providing this verification. While the Boston Housing Authority has an express preference for reprisal, many authorities do not. Again, you would need to request information regarding the preferences at each place you apply for housing.

  • Victims of other violent crimes and hate crimes may also qualify for a preference for abuse victims, depending on each housing authority's preferences.

Help finding housing

Local battered women's programs may offer help to people facing domestic violence who need assistance finding housing and getting through the application process at a very stressful time when a safe and secure place to live is very important. For a list of battered women's programs in Massachusetts, see the Directory or go to the Massachusetts Coalition for Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence website, Jane Doe.org. They keep the most up-to-date list of Massachusetts Domestic Violence Programs you can find online.

For people with disabilities, are there any priorities?

Yes. While there are housing programs that are specifically for people with disabilities, other programs may have preferences or priorities for people with disabilities. For information about programs specifically for people with disabilities, see Housing Programs in Massachusetts.

State public housing

For state family public housing, a housing authority may establish a priority for people facing a severe medical emergency. You can find this out by requesting its Emergency Case Plan.28

For state elderly and disabled public housing, although this housing is specifically for seniors and people with disabilities, a housing authority may place a limit on the number of people with disabilities who are non-elderly (less than 60 years of age) who are admitted to these developments.29 For more information, see Who Is Eligible.

Federal public housing

For federal family public housing, the housing authority may establish a preference for families or single people who have a disability.30 Also, if the housing authority has established a priority for working families or single persons, it must give the priority to persons who cannot work because of a disability.31 While the housing authority may adopt a preference for persons with disabilities in general, the authority may not adopt a preference for a specific disability.32 

For federal elderly and disabled housing, a particular development may be identified as all-elderly or all-disabled.33 For more information, ask the housing authority where you are applying.

For people who are working, is there a priority?

There may be. For federal programs, a housing authority or subsidized owner of multifamily housing can have a priority for working people. The definition of "working" includes both families where the head of the household (or his or her spouse) is employed and single people who are employed.

A priority for working people, however, cannot legally discriminate against people who are unable to work because they are elderly or have a disability. If a housing authority or subsidized landlord has a priority for working people, this priority must also include families where the head of the household (or spouse) or sole member is either 62 years or older or has a disability (even if no one in the household is employed).34

For local residents, is there a priority?

Yes. Housing authorities and owners of multifamily subsidized housing can have a priority or preference for local residents, but there are some differences between federally funded and state-funded programs.

State programs, including MRVP and AHVP

For state-funded housing programs, a local residency preference is required (mandatory) and is applied within the priorities listed in What priorities are required in state-funded housing?. This includes state public housing, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), and the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP).35  

For example, if you have a priority because you are about to become homeless under the housing authority's Emergency Case Plan and you are a local resident, your name will be above other applicants who are about to become homeless who are not local residents.

If you are in a homeless shelter, you should also be able to claim a local residency preference in the city or town where the shelter is if you intend to stay in that community. You can also claim a local residency preference in the community where you lived before becoming homeless. You must choose one community to claim residency. You cannot claim residency in both communities.36

Federal programs, including Section 8 vouchers

A housing authority can provide a preference for local residents in its federal public housing and Section 8 programs.37 An owner of federally funded multifamily housing can also establish a local residency preference.

In either situation, a housing authority or subsidized landlord cannot make local residency a requirement for its programs. This means that you can apply at any housing authority or development regardless of where you are living or working now. Also, a housing authority or subsidized landlord cannot require you to have been a local resident for a minimum period of time before you qualify for this type of preference.38

If a housing authority or subsidized landlord chooses to have a local residency preference, you qualify for this preference if you:

  • Live in a certain geographic area; or
  • Work in a certain geographic area; or
  • Have been notified that you have been hired to work in a certain geographic area.

The local geographic area is usually defined as the area covered by the particular housing authority. This area cannot be restricted to a particular neighborhood or only some parts of the city or town.

A local residency preference can include local resident graduates and active participants in education and training programs in the geographic area if the programs are designed to prepare people to enter the job market there.

For veterans or their relatives, is there a preference?

State public housing

Yes. For state-funded public housing, housing authorities give a preference to veterans.39 If you are a veteran applying for elderly and disabled public housing, you can qualify for this preference if you live in the community where the housing authority is located. The preference for veterans applies also to certain close relatives—spouse, surviving spouse, parents, and dependents.40

If you are a veteran applying for family housing, you do not have to be a local resident to qualify for this preference. But the preference is applied in the following order:

  • Veterans with a service-connected disability,
  • Families of deceased veterans whose death was service-connected, or
  • Other veterans.

Federal programs, including Section 8 vouchers

For federal housing programs, each housing authority is allowed to set its own preferences. Some establish a preference for veterans. You should check with each housing authority where you are applying to see what their priorities are for the federal programs.

For tenants in private housing facing no-fault evictions, is there a preference?

State public housing

Yes. Under a state program's Emergency Case Plan, a tenant in private housing who has been evicted in a no-fault eviction should qualify for the emergency preference. This includes tenants who are still in the apartment but under a stay of execution from the eviction.41

Federal programs, including Section 8 vouchers

For federal housing programs, each housing authority is allowed to set its own preferences. Some housing authorities provide preferences for applicants to federal housing programs who have been or are about to be evicted through no fault of their own. In some cases this preference may even be broader than the state preference.42 

If I have been homeless and was given a temporary subsidy to help pay for my housing, will I lose a priority?

In the past year, Massachusetts has been using both state and federal funding to help families and individuals in shelters avoid lengthy shelter stays by offering temporary subsidies to rent an apartment on the private market. Typically, these subsidies last between three and eighteen months.

For more information about the Housing Stabilization resources available in Massachusetts, see Housing Programs in Massachusetts.

At the writing of this book, there is no clear guidance about how those applicants should be treated in terms of any priority for homeless applicants in any permanent housing program. The state housing agency, DHCD, has stated informally that it will instruct housing authorities to continue to give these applicants a preference under a homeless category. In addition, in 2006 DHCD issued a policy memorandum stating that persons in "transitional housing programs" should "in almost all circumstances" be considered to meet the definition of "homeless" for purposes of obtaining emergency status.43  If you are an applicant in this situation, you may have been given a letter from DHCD to include with any application for permanent housing. This letter states that a housing program should still consider you homeless for purposes of giving you a priority.


24 760 C.M.R. § 5.11.

25 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(4 Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207(b)(4 Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4. Domestic violence as defined by HUD is "actual or threatened physical violence directed against one or more members of the applicant's family by a spouse or other members of the applicant's household." HUD Public Housing Occupancy Guidebook (June 2003), § 19.1. See also HUD Housing Notice 2009-15 (October 1, 2009).

26 See HUD Public Housing Occupancy Guidebook (June 2003), § 19.2. Also, HUD's former federal preference regulations made it clear that these and other types of verifications of domestic violence can be used to prove displacement by domestic violence. For state programs, see DHCD memos entitled Verification of Priority Status, Sept. 9, 1996, and Domestic Violence Priority Status, Aug. 1, 2005, on file at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

27 This is called "standard, permanent replacement housing." It comes from the former federal regulation that mandated that persons who were "involuntarily displaced" received a preference for federal public and subsidized housing programs. 24 C.F.R. § 5.420 (in place until April 2000). While this regulation is no longer in force, a number of housing authorities and subsidized owners may continue to use its language in their Tenant Selection Plans.

28 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.09(1)(d) and 5.11.

29 G.L. c. 121B, § 39; 760 C.M.R. § 5.10(1)(a) and (2).

30 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(3) and (5).

31 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(2).

32 24 C.F.R. § 960.208(b)(3).

33 42 U.S.C. § 1437e.

34 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(2 Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207(b)(2 Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4.

35 760 C.M.R. § 5.09(2 MRVP: 760 C.M.R. § 49.04(1 AHVP: 760 C.M.R. § 53.04(1).

36 760 C.M.R. § 5.03 (definition of "local resident").

37 Public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(1 Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207(b)(1).

38 Federal Public Housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(b)(1)(iv Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207(b)(1)(iv).

39 760 C.M.R. § 5.09(2)(a).

40 G.L. c. 121B, § 32; see also G.L. c. 4, § 7, clause 43; DHCD Public Housing Notice 2004-04.

41 DHCD Public Housing Notice 2003-08.

42 For example, Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston all have homeless preferences for at least some of their federal programs.

43 DHCD Public Housing Notice 2006-11, referring to selection categories found in 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).

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