What is the difference between public and subsidized housing?

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

Different housing programs have different features.

Public housing is housing that the government owns and runs through organizations such as a local housing authority.

Subsidized housing is not owned by the government. Subsidized housing means that your rent is being “subsidized” (the government pays for part of your rent or mortgage). There are many different types of subsidized housing.

While all types of public housing and subsidized housing help make your rent more affordable, it is important to understand the features of each program so that you can apply to the ones that are best suited to your family. If you have questions about a housing program, talk to your local housing authority or local community action program. Here are some things to know.

Who is my landlord?

If you live in public housing, the housing authority owns your building and is your landlord. In a few cases, a private company may manage the building for the housing authority or may be part of the ownership, but the building is still controlled by the housing authority.1 Housing authorities operate in most cities and towns in Massachusetts. They were established by state law to provide affordable housing for low-income people.

If you live in subsidized housing, the housing authority is not your landlord. Subsidized housing is owned and operated by private owners who receive subsidies in exchange for renting to low- and moderate-income people. Owners may be individual landlords or for-profit or nonprofit corporations.

Subsidized housing can be obtained through vouchers, where the subsidy is used by a tenant to find rental housing in the private market and is paid to a private landlord. This voucher stays with the tenant. Or it can be multifamily subsidized housing, where the subsidy is given to the owner who provides affordable housing. This subsidy stays with the property.

Am I eligible?

To be eligible for public and subsidized housing, your income must be below certain income limits. You must also meet other qualifications.

  • Income limits for public housing and vouchers are set by the government and change every year. 
  • Income limits for multifamily subsidized housing vary from development to development. 

Learn more at Am I eligible for public and subsidized housing?

Where can I live?

It depends on your type of housing:

  • If you have a voucher, you can use it anywhere in the state; 
  • If you have a Section 8 voucher specifically, you can use it outside of the state. 
  • If you get into public housing, you must live in the community where you applied.
  • If you get into multifamily subsidized housing, you must live in the development where you applied.

If you have a voucher and want to move, you can take your voucher with you. If you move from public housing or multifamily subsidized housing, you cannot take your subsidy with you.

Who has priority?

Because more people apply for public and subsidized housing than there are apartments available, the law may require or permit different housing programs to give certain people priority or preference over others. What preferences are required or permitted depends on whether the housing receives federal or state funding.

When you are applying for housing, it is very important to know what the priorities are for that particular program, housing authority, and/or owner. If you fit into a priority, you could improve your chance of getting housing.

How do waiting lists work?

In general, waiting lists for public housing are shorter than for vouchers. Many waiting lists are long and some are closed. But many housing authorities will accept applications for public housing all year long. The centralized Section 8 waiting list operated by MassNAHRO and the waiting lists at the regional nonprofit housing agencies are open indefinitely. 

How am I screened as an applicant?

Housing authorities and owners of subsidized housing have the right to do tenant screening. They do this by checking various records, the most common of which are past landlord references, credit reports, and criminal records. 

The rules concerning access to criminal records are different for public housing and vouchers than they are for multifamily subsidized housing. 

For more information, see The basics of tenant screening.

How can I find an apartment?

Once you are admitted to public housing or a multifamily subsidized housing development, you have an apartment. You do not need to find your own apartment.

With a voucher, you have to find your own apartment in the private market.  If, within a certain period of time, you do not find an apartment that has a reasonable rent and is in good condition, your voucher will expire, you will lose it, and you will have to reapply.

How much rent do I pay?

To learn more about how rent is calculated, see Rent basics.

What are my rights?

If you get into public housing or multifamily subsidized housing, or if you get a voucher, you have different rights concerning evictions, grievances, tenant participation, and many other issues.

What if my family size changes?

In all housing programs, you should promptly report if there are changes in your family size. If someone has left your household, the housing authority or owner may request verification of their new address. If a minor child is added to the household due to birth, adoption, or court-awarded custody, advance approval of the addition is not needed before the child moves in. In all other cases, you will need to get advance approval before a new family member moves in. In addition, the housing authority or owner may screen additions to the household for criminal history and (in most of the federal programs) for immigration status.2

In public housing or multifamily housing, if your family size changes, you may be able to transfer to another public housing or subsidized apartment of a more appropriate size. These transfers often take a long time to happen.3 In state public housing, if you are in too large an apartment for your family size (you are “over-housed”) and you don’t transfer into a smaller sized unit offered by the housing authority, your rent can be increased to 150% of its usual level.4 There is also a chance that, if you refuse to transfer, you could be evicted.

With a voucher, if your family size changes, the subsidy with the voucher changes by the date that your annual recertification for your income and family composition is effective. This is so that you can find an apartment that is a better match to your household size. This means, however, that in addition to adjusting with an increase in family size, if there is a reduction in your household size, the subsidy is reduced at the time of your annual recertification, so you would have to pay a greater portion of your rent or move. You can ask the housing agency to let you have a different “subsidy standard” (bedroom size for the subsidy) than it would normally apply due to your family’s medical needs or other special circumstances.

Can I be evicted or lose my subsidy?

The only reason you can be evicted from public housing or any multifamily housing is if you violate the lease or program rules. As long as you abide by the terms of the lease, you can stay in your apartment.5 If you are evicted from public housing or subsidized multifamily housing, you lose your subsidy.

In the tenant-based voucher programs, during the first year of the lease or at any time thereafter, you can be evicted for violating your lease. At the end of the first year or at the end of any further renewal period, the landlord may refuse to renew the lease and you may have to move even if you did not do anything wrong. In addition, after the first year of the lease, the landlord can terminate your tenancy with a 30-day notice to quit, although it must be for  a good reason which is not your fault (such as sale of the property, need for a higher rent, renovations, or needing the apartment for a family member). If the eviction is not your fault, you can keep your subsidy and use it to move to a new apartment. If you lose an eviction case for a reason that is your fault, you may lose your subsidy.6

For the MRVP and Section 8 voucher programs, if the landlord terminates the lease or refuses to renew the subsidy, the housing agency should continue to pay its portion of the rent until the eviction process is completed (including any appeal of an eviction case or any stay of execution) or until you move.7 There may be cases, however, where the housing agency stops paying its subsidy or terminates its contract with the owner because the owner has failed to make repairs. However, the housing agency may require you to relocate with your voucher in order to continue receiving assistance.  

If you are being evicted for a reason that is your fault, the housing authority may refuse to issue you a voucher to relocate if it thinks there are grounds to terminate your assistance.8 This may happen because the landlord is claiming that you violated your lease. If this happens, contact a local legal services program or community action agency to see if they can help you.


There may be circumstances where a limited liability corporation is the formal owner so that the development can take advantage of special financing, such as use of tax credits. 42 U.S.C. § 1437z-7. This may happen, for example, through the HOPE VI redevelopment process. However, the housing authority should still have ultimate control through the way that the ownership is structured, and the housing is still public housing.


See 42 U.S.C. § 3602(k) (definition of “familial status”); 24 C.F.R. §§ 966.4(a)(1)(v) (federal public housing) and 982.551(h) (Section 8 voucher program).


Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 966.4(c) and (d); State: 760 C.M.R. § 6.06(3)(h).


G.L. c. 121B, § 32; 760 C.M.R. §§ 6.03 (definition of “overhoused”), 6.04(1)(c) (sanction for failure of overhoused tenant to transfer).


Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 966.4(l); State: 760 C.M.R. § 6.06(6).


Federal: 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.310 and 982.314; State: 760 C.M.R. § 49.05(3). 


24 C.F.R. § 982.311(b); see also DHCD MRVP Notice 2001-03, on file at www.masslegalservices.org.


24 C.F.R. § 982.354(e)(2). 


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