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How Waiting Lists Work

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

What is a waiting list?

Unfortunately, the need for affordable housing in Massachusetts is much greater than what is available. As a result, housing agencies and owners of multifamily housing must keep waiting lists of applicants.1 In recent years, these waiting lists have grown longer. In fact, many places may have partially or completely stopped taking applications at all.

Because the waiting lists are so long, it is important to:

  • Apply for as many different housing programs as you can.
  • See if you fit into any preferences or priorities so that you can improve your chances of getting to the top of the lists more quickly. For more on this, see Who Has Priority.
  • Request a written receipt for all applications you submit. They are your best proof that you have applied for a particular housing program and the date you applied.
  • Keep track of your applications and your place on all the waiting lists.
  • Notify all the places where you submitted applications of your new address if you move.

How do I find out whether a list is open?

One way to find out which waiting lists for public housing and vouchers are open is to search HousingWorks. Housing search agencies may also be able to complete applications for you on the computer. For a list of housing search agencies, see the Directory and look for Housing Search Agencies.

You may also find out from the newspaper when a Section 8 waiting list opens. A housing authority must give public notice. The notice must be published in a local newspaper of general circulation, and through minority media. The notice must state where and when to apply as well as any limitations on who may apply.2

There are two large Section 8 waiting lists which always accept applications. The first is through the regional nonprofit housing agencies. To find the
regional nonprofit in your area, see the Directory You can apply to this statewide list from the Rentals and Documentation page on EOHLC's website.

The second is a single waiting list for about 80 housing authorities. The list is maintained by MassNAHRO (Massachusetts chapter of National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials), and housing authorities can choose whether or not to participate. To apply to the group list (one application for all participating housing authorities), you can call MassNAHRO at 617-367-0008 or go to MassNAHRO.

Can a waiting list be closed?

Yes. Sometimes a waiting list for a particular type of housing can be closed. If this happens, you cannot apply for that type of housing with that housing agency or landlord.

  • Public housing
    In general, public housing lists are almost always open.
  • Vouchers
    If a housing authority or regional nonprofit housing agency determines that its waiting list for Section 8 vouchers has enough applicants to use available funding for Section 8, it may stop accepting new applications.3 This has led to Section 8 waiting lists being closed most of the time for the past several years. Some lists accept applications indefinitely, but may not be issuing new vouchers.
  • Multifamily housing
    For housing subsidized through MassHousing, an owner can close a waiting list only if the owner gets permission from the state agency.4 For other multifamily programs, waiting lists can be closed more easily.

How are waiting lists organized?

Waiting lists can be organized either by the date and time your application was received or by a random lottery.5 In recent years, housing authorities have been encouraged to use a random lottery system for fairness, especially when a closed waiting list is open only a short time.

A random lottery can work in many different ways. Applications will be accepted for a certain period of time. Then, after a housing authority closes the application period, it creates a waiting list by randomly picking applicants and assigning them a number on the waiting list. The housing agency can use a random lottery among all applicants on a waiting list or among all applicants in particular priority categories.6

Regardless of the procedures, you should request a written receipt for all applications you submit. Housing authorities are required to provide a written receipt to applicants for state public housing, and most other programs will do so at your request.7 Save these receipts. They are your best proof that you have applied for a particular housing program and the date you applied.


Because housing authorities and subsidized landlords usually get more applicants than there are units available, in order to decide who gets housing first, they may categorize people into preferences and priorities.8

Preferences can determine who will be placed at the top of a given waiting list. In many areas, because of the length of waiting lists, whether you qualify for a preference may determine whether and how quickly you receive housing. In some instances, a waiting list may be closed to people without preferences and open only to people who qualify for certain preferences. So if you are told that a list is closed, you should ask whether the list is open to any people with a preference.

However, some waiting lists are so long that even people with preferences may have a long wait. What is important is to understand whether you fit into any preferences or priorities at each place you apply. See Who Has Priority.


1 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.204-207; State public housing, Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), and Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP): 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(2).

2 24 C.F.R. § 982.206.

3 24 C.F.R. § 982.206(c).

4 MHFA Tenant Selection Plan (Section, REV:2/00, p. 8/Section 236/Section 13A/MRVP/Rental Assistance/Rent Supplement Program Developments), REV: 9/09, § G, available through MassHousing.

5 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(e Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.204(b State public housing, MRVP, and AHVP: 760 C.M.R. § 5.05.

6 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(e Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.204(b).

7 760 C.M.R. §5.05(2).

8 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207; State public housing: 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.05(2), 5.09; MRVP: 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 49.04(1 AHVP: 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 53.04(1).

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