Once You Are on a Waiting List

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

What happens if I am put on a waiting list?

If your application for a housing program is accepted, your name must go onto a waiting list for that program. You will then have to wait until your name comes to the top of the list.

For federal public housing, the housing authority will tell you approximately when an appropriately sized apartment is expected to be available.9 Other programs may give you only a rough estimate. Multifamily housing owners are not required to contact you until your name reaches the top of the waiting list, but may require you to contact them periodically to stay on the waiting list.10


At some point, as your name gets closer to the top of the list, the housing agency or subsidized landlord will check your landlord references and credit reports and do a criminal background check for most members of your household. To prepare for this, see Tenant Screening.

Staying on the list

During the time you are on the waiting list, housing agencies and landlords will from time to time send you a notice asking whether you are still interested in being on the waiting list.11 You will be given only a short time to respond to this notice. If you do not respond by the deadline, you will be taken off the waiting list.

For this reason, you should check your mail regularly and respond quickly to any request. If you move, send written notification of your new address to all the places where you submitted applications. Keep a copy of your letter so you can prove that you notified the agency or landlord of your change in address. You can download and use this  Sample Change of Address Letter.

How do I keep track of my place on a waiting list?

Keep track of your number

As an applicant, you have a right to find out where you are on a waiting list. If your application has been accepted, you will likely be given a number for each application you file. Usually it is called a client number or a control number. It is very important to always keep a record of each number because you will need it to find your place on the waiting list in the future. When you are assigned a number varies by program.

  • Public housing
    In state public housing, separate numbers are assigned for the standard application and the emergency application.
  • Vouchers
    There is no standard practice about assigning control numbers.
  • Multifamily subsidized housing
    Some subsidized landlords give out a number only after an applicant is determined eligible and any priority has been checked (verified). Some never give a number.

For more information about how to keep track of your housing search, see How to Apply.

Keep in contact

Because waiting lists are so long, you may want to contact the housing agency or landlord every so often to see what progress you are making on the waiting list. Different housing agencies and landlords have set up different procedures to follow for contacting them. For example, some require you to contact them in writing before they will mail you a statement of your current place on the list. Others have certain days and times during the week when you can call or go in person to find out your current place on the list.

If you are applying for federal public and multifamily housing, a new rule requires housing authorities and owners must provide applicants with an option to ask to have a third party be notified about any issues with your application.12 This means that if you are working with a caseworker, you can ask that the caseworker receive your mail about your application.  But you can even identify a family member or friend.  This can be very helpful for you to keep track of your applications.

Keep a log

It can be difficult to keep track of your housing search. You often have a lot of papers, you are applying to many housing authorities and developments, and you are on waiting lists for a long time. Use a log to keep track of your waiting list numbers and other information. You can download and use the Housing Search Log.

How long will I wait?

Waiting lists for housing programs can be very long. If you apply for housing in a lottery, you may be lucky and have your control number pulled early, giving you a place closer to the top of the waiting list.

If you qualify for a preference or priority used by the housing authority or landlord, you will move more quickly up a waiting list. If you do not qualify for any priority or preference, you are considered a standard applicant and will wait longer.

In general, waiting lists for public housing are shorter than for vouchers and subsidized multifamily buildings. For public housing, waiting lists for housing programs for the elderly and disabled are often shorter than for family housing. Waiting lists for apartments with more bedrooms may be longer, since there are fewer units of 4 or more bedrooms available. Depending on the size of your family, you can ask for an apartment with fewer bedrooms if that would make your wait shorter.

If you have applied for state public housing for elders and people with disabilities, there is a limit as to the percentage of people with disabilities who are not elderly who may get apartments. Under state law, a housing authority can rent no more than 13.5% of this type of housing to non-elderly people with disabilities. Some communities have been at this 13.5% cap for years.13 If you have a disability and are not elderly, this will make your time on some waiting lists extremely long. Because of this you may want to apply for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP).14 This program was designed specifically to help people with disabilities who have no realistic chance of getting an apartment in state elderly/disabled public housing because of the 13.5% cap. Some federal public housing for elders and people with disabilities may also have a cap on the number of people with disabilities who can get an apartment. For a list of housing authorities with AHVP vouchers, download the file Types of Housing at each Local Housing Authority from the Public Housing Applications and Documentations page of Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development website. 

What happens if my situation changes after I apply?

If, after you have been accepted on a waiting list, your situation changes and you become eligible for a preference or a priority, you should notify housing agencies and subsidized landlords right away. Qualifying for a preference can move your place on the waiting list closer to the top. This also explains why sometimes you move further from the top of the list when people who apply after you later qualify for a preference or priority and move ahead of other applicants. Other changes which may affect your placement on the waiting list include changes in household size, becoming elderly or disabled, or losing a preference or priority.

Because preferences and priorities vary among programs, make sure you ask each place where you have applied what its priorities and preferences are. For more on this see Who Has Priority.

If I was taken off a waiting list, is there anything I can do?

It depends. If you moved and never notified the housing agency or landlord of your new address, you may not be able to do anything about being taken off a waiting list. If, however, you were taken off a waiting list and it was related to a disability (for example, if you were hospitalized at the time a notice was sent to you), you can ask to be put back on the waiting list as a reasonable accommodation to your disability.15 For more information, see Reasonable Accommodations.


9 24 C.F.R. § 960.208(b).

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

11 Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.204(c State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.14; MassHousing subsidized housing developments: MHFA Tenant Selection Plan (Section 8/Section 236/Section 13A/MRVP/Rental Assistance/Rent Supplement Program Developments), REV: 9/09, § G, available through MassHousing.

12 HUD Public Housing Notice 2009-36 (September 15, 2009), parallel to HUD Housing Notice 2009-13.

13 760 C.M.R. § 5.10(1)(a) and (2).

14 760 C.M.R. §§ 53.00 et seq.

15 24 C.F.R. § 982.204(c)(2).

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