Am I eligible for public and subsidized housing?

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

If you apply for public or subsidized housing, determining whether you are eligible is the first step in the application process. Being eligible means that 

  • your yearly income is below a certain limit, 
  • you meet the definition of family, and 
  • for some programs, at least one member of your family is either a U.S. citizen or an eligible immigrant.

Once a housing provider determines that you are eligible, they will review your application to determine if you qualify for a “priority” or a “preference.” Priorities and preferences determine your place on the waiting list, which determines how long you have to wait to get an apartment unit or voucher. See Who Has Priority

Once you are found eligible and qualify for any priorities or preferences, the next step is for a housing agency or subsidized landlord to determine if you pass their tenant screening process. See Tenant Screening.


Financial Eligibility

Am I financially eligible?

To be eligible for public or subsidized housing, your household’s yearly income must be below certain income limits. Generally, that income is measured by comparing your income to the average income in the area. This is called the area median income. If your income falls below a certain percentage of the area median income, you are income eligible and can apply to that housing program.

The government sets income limits for public housing and vouchers. These limits change every year and are different in different parts of the state and for different sized families. Often, the income limits for a housing program appear right on the application itself. The best thing to do is to ask the housing agency or subsidized landlord what the income guidelines are for their programs. Below is information on the financial eligibility requirements for the various types of public and subsidized housing available to low-income individuals in Massachusetts.

State-Aided Housing Programs: State Public Housing, Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), and Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP)

You are income eligible for state-aided housing if your net income is less than 80% of the area median income. Net income for these programs is total annual income before taxes (gross income) minus certain allowable deductions. If your gross income exceeds the limits below, go to “How do I figure out my household’s yearly income to determine if I am eligible?" to see if you have income that should be excluded or deductions that can be applied to reduce your income to an eligible level.

The income limits for state-aided housing programs effective May 15th, 2023 can be found in the Guide to Applying for Public Housing.

Federal Housing Programs: Federal Public Housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, Section 8 Project-Based Vouchers, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME Funds

Federal public housing

You are income eligible for federal public housing if your yearly income is less than 80% of the area median income.

Section 8 voucher

You are income eligible for a Section 8 voucher if your yearly income is less than 50% of the area median income (although in some cases the income limit could be as high as 80% of area median income).

Federally subsidized housing

For the HOME tenant-based rental assistance program, your income must be either 50% or 80% of area median income or below. In some cases, there are subsidies targeted to families at or below 60% of area median income.

For the tax credit programs, some developments will look for applicants at or below 50% or 60% of area median income. You may have to ask to find out which rule applies.

These programs often only have a shallow subsidy, which means the rent is fixed and does not change with your income. As a result, an owner could decide that your income is too low to qualify for the flat rent. The owner must, however, consider any rental subsidy that would be available to you for the apartment in determining affordability (such as a Section 8 voucher that you could use there).

How do I figure out my household’s yearly income to determine if I am eligible?

Different housing programs have different rules about how you determine your household’s yearly income to figure out whether you are income eligible.

Federal housing programs base eligibility on what is called gross yearly income. Gross yearly income is before-tax income, and does not include funds such as earned income from children under 18 years old, amounts received through training programs funded by HUD, insurance payments and settlements for personal or property losses, and the income of a live-in aide. For a complete list of excluded income types, go to 24 CFR 5.609.

State housing programs base eligibility on net yearly income. Net yearly income does not include funds such as wages earned by full- or part-time students, worker’s compensation, and a certain amount of wages earned by a tenant age 62 or older. It also lets you deduct certain amounts, such as necessary medical expenses and personal care services.

Because this is complicated, the best thing to do is to ask the housing agency or subsidized landlord for information about how they calculate your yearly income. 

Am I still eligible for housing if I have assets?

Federal housing programs 

An asset is something you own that has value. For example, a house, a car, life insurance that you can cash in, or money you have in a bank. Families owning real property that “is suitable for occupancy,” or assets over $100,000, are not eligible for federal public housing, the Section 8 voucher program, or HUD federally subsidized multifamily housing. Also, if you have assets worth less than $100,000 and you earn income from your assets—for example, interest from a bank or rental income—that income will be counted in determining if you are income eligible.

State public housing and AHVP

There are no asset limits for most state housing programs. As with federal programs, however, income that comes from your assets is included in determining if you are income eligible. 

Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program

To get a tenant-based or project-based voucher through MRVP, you cannot have assets that are worth more than one and one-half times your income or $25,000, whichever is greater. Once you have a voucher, you cannot lose it because you gain assets. This is because there is no asset limit for continued eligibility.

Other Eligibility Requirements

Does my family have to be a certain size?

Generally, any size family is eligible for public and subsidized housing. A family can be defined as a single person, 2 or more adults living together, or 1 or more adults living with children.

The size and type of your family will become important when it comes to placing you on waiting lists, since many housing authorities maintain waiting lists for available apartments according to bedroom size. Also, in housing for elders and people with disabilities, there are usually only studio or 1-bedroom apartments. Therefore, if you have a larger family, you will not be eligible for any development that has only 1-bedroom units on site, and won’t be allowed to be placed on that waiting list.

For Section 8, there is a special rule that young full-time students without dependents cannot receive assistance. There is also a unique IRS (Internal Revenue Service) rule for tax credit developments, which may bar adult students from being eligible. But there are a number of exceptions that may fit your situation.

If I am an immigrant, am I eligible?

In general, you do not always have to be a United States citizen to apply for public or subsidized housing. Legal permanent residents and many other immigrants can apply for all types of government housing.

State public housing programs do not require information about immigration status or citizenship at all. 

For federal public housing, at least 1 member of your family must be a U.S. citizen or have a certain type of legal immigration status. If some members of your family are not U.S. citizens or do not have the proper immigration status, you can still apply for federal elderly/disabled public housing, but you will not get full assistance and your rent will be higher. You will not be eligible for most federal housing programs if your entire family is undocumented.

For the Federal HOME and tax credit programs there is no explicit rule requiring them to consider immigration status for eligibility reasons. However, the other types of financing for the development (for example, federal public housing or Section 8 assistance) may put restrictions on eligibility based on your immigration status. You need to ask the owner about all of the financing and rules that may apply to the development.

For more, see Immigration Status and Affordable Housing.

Are there special rules for seniors and people with disabilities?

Federal housing

For federal elderly/disabled public and multifamily housing, the head of household or a spouse must be at least 62 years old or have a disability. Some housing authorities will let you apply if you are or your spouse is at least 50 years of age, which is known as “near-elderly.” Under certain circumstances, HUD allows housing authorities to create developments that are either all elderly or all disabled. This is called “designated housing.”

There are also federal multifamily housing developments specifically for the elderly and people with disabilities. For these developments you must be age 62 or older or be disabled.

State housing

For state elderly/disabled public and multifamily housing, at least 1 member of your household must be at least 60 years of age or have a disability. The person with a disability does not have to be the head of household or spouse (as is the case in federal public housing). There is a limit as to the percentage of non-elderly people with disabilities who are allowed to rent. Under state law, no more than 13.5% of state-funded elderly and disabled apartments in each development can be rented to non-elderly people with disabilities.

Some places have been at this 13.5% cap for many years. In those communities, it is very difficult for non-elderly people with disabilities to get apartments. If you are not sure if a particular housing authority has reached this cap, you can contact the housing authority or the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities.

If you have a disability, you must show that you have a disability. You can do this by showing either that you receive SSI or SSDI or that you have a long-term physical, mental, or emotional impairment that substantially limits 1 or more major life activities. If you do not qualify for SSI or SSDI, you will probably need, at the minimum, a doctor’s letter to prove your disability. Also, if you are applying for an apartment that has special adaptations (such as being wheelchair accessible), you will need to show that you need that feature.

If you have a disability, you are also generally eligible for family public housing. Some family public housing programs also give preferences to people with disabilities. So if you have a disability, it is important to say that you have a disability on any application. 

All housing authorities must give people with disabilities information about how to request a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is the legal requirement that a landlord provide services or equipment or a change in the lease or rules to allow a person with a disability to apply for, move in, and remain in the apartment.

Special Issues

Can I apply for housing if I am under 18?

Some housing authorities have a requirement that a person must be either 18 years of age, a custodial parent if under 18, or legally emancipated by a court in order to be eligible for public or subsidized housing. In some states, minors under 18 cannot be held to the terms of their leases. This is the reason housing authorities often give for this requirement.

Some applicants to state and federal public or subsidized housing have challenged these practices, alleging violations of anti-discrimination and other laws. A few of these challenges have been successful and others have not. Even if it is lawful for a housing authority to deny housing to a minor, it may be unlawful if this policy was not put in writing by the housing authority before they denied you admission. If you want to challenge a denial based on age, it may mean you need to ask the housing authority for its tenant selection plan or Admissions and Continued Occupancy Plan. If the plan does not require, in writing, that an applicant be at least 18, you have a good case to challenge the denial. If you appeal the decision, you should try to produce as much evidence as possible that you will be able to live up to your obligations under your lease, such as paying rent, keeping the apartment in a safe and sanitary condition, and not disturbing your neighbors.

If I have a criminal record or history of substance abuse, am I eligible?

Yes. However, being eligible to be placed on a waiting list is different from being “suitable” to live in the housing. Once a housing agency determines you are eligible, in most cases it will eventually look at your housing, criminal, and credit history to determine how you would likely be as a tenant. You could be denied housing because of a criminal record or history of substance abuse, but the exact reasons for denial depend on the type of housing you are applying for and the nature of the misconduct. There are different rules for different programs. 

For more information about how to prepare your application and protect yourself during the screening process, see  Chapter 6: Tenant Screening and  Chapter 7: Challenging a Denial of Housing.

If I am a survivor of domestic violence, are there any special protections when I apply for housing?

Yes. There are both state and federal laws that protect survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, and sexual assault.

Domestic violence includes felony or misdemeanor crimes committed by a person who:

  • is a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim;
  • is living with or has lived with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner;
  • shares a child in common with the victim; or
  • commits acts against a youth or adult victim who is protected from those acts under the family or domestic violence laws of the jurisdiction.

Dating violence means violence committed by a person:

  1. who is or has been in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature with the victim; and
  2. where the existence of such a relationship shall be determined based on a consideration of the following factors:
    1. length of the relationship,
    2. type of relationship, and
    3. frequency of interaction between the people involved in the relationship.

Sexual assault is any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by federal, tribal, or state law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.

Stalking means engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to:

  • fear for their safety or the safety of others, or 
  • suffer substantial emotional distress.

Federal housing programs

The Violence Against Women Act says that being a survivor of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking cannot be a reason for being denied admission to federal public or subsidized housing, or assistance from federal housing programs such as Section 8.

For example, if a housing authority denies you housing because a prior landlord said that your boyfriend broke windows and destroyed property, the law says that you cannot be denied housing because of behavior that is considered domestic violence.

State housing programs

Housing authorities are required to consider as a mitigating circumstance whether an applicant was a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking, and that any lease violation at a prior tenancy (including damage, disturbance, and non-payment of rent) was caused by the perpetrator of the domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

If you feel that you have been denied either federal or state housing or housing assistance because of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking, you should challenge this denial. See  Challenging a Denial.


Any information you give to a service provider, owner, or housing agency that an individual is a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking, must be kept confidential.


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