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Priorities and Preferences

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

What are priorities and preferences?

Because more people apply for public and subsidized housing than there are apartments available, the law requires different housing programs to establish preferences and priorities for certain people.

Both preferences and priorities are categories for people with special status or urgent housing needs. Often these words are used interchangeably. For state housing programs, there are priorities to see who gets housing first, and then there may be preferences about who gets housing first within a priority. For federal housing programs, there are usually just preferences.

But don't worry about these terms. What is important is whether you fit into any categories that move you up a waiting list more quickly or that get you on a waiting list at all.

Ask for preferences and priorities

Not every housing agency or multifamily landlord provides preferences, but many do. Some preferences are required (mandatory preferences). Others are optional and not required (discretionary preferences). What preferences are required depends upon whether the housing program you apply for receives federal or state funds.1 So it is important to know whether you are applying for a state- or federally funded housing program.

Some housing agencies have also been given permission from the state to use different preferences to meet the needs of their communities.2 Because every housing agency and multifamily development will have different preferences, make sure you ask at each place where you apply what their preferences are.

Proving that you qualify

If you fit into a preference category, at some point you will need to provide a housing agency or subsidized landlord with documents proving that you qualify for a preference. They may not request these documents until you reach the top of a waiting list and are approved for housing. But it is good to be prepared for when this happens.

If your situation changes

Even if you did not qualify for a preference when you first got on a waiting list, if your situation changes and you qualify later, you can still apply for the preference. You should immediately notify all the housing authorities and other housing agencies where you have applied for housing that you now meet the requirements for obtaining a preference. This will move you closer to the top of the waiting list.

If you fit into a preference category when you applied but something changed by the time you got to the top of the waiting list, you may lose that preference. For example, if you had a preference because you were homeless when you applied but you are no longer homeless, you may lose that preference. If this happens, you should always check to see if you fit into another preference category, such as a preference for local residents.

How can I find out what preferences there are?

If you are applying for public or subsidized housing, housing authorities and subsidized landlords are required to tell you what preferences are available so that you have an opportunity to show them whether you qualify.3 You should also ask for a written list of preferences and priorities from each place where you are interested in applying to be sure you are clear about all of the possibilities.

Preferences for all housing programs that a housing authority runs should also be posted at that housing authority's office. Some may make it available on a website, if they have one. Remember: Every housing agency and multifamily development will have different preferences, although they may be very similar.

Additional documents

Although a housing agency or subsidized landlord may have a handout explaining its preferences and priorities, there are documents that are required to spell these out which you can ask for (in addition to a handout). A housing authority must give you these documents if you request them. They include:

  • Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy (ACOP)
    This is a document that housing authorities who receive federal funds have. It explains all of the policies of the housing authority regarding its federal public housing program, including the preferences for federal public housing.4
  • Emergency Case Plan
    This is a document in which a state-funded housing authority sets out an emergency plan explaining priorities for its housing programs (which includes state-funded public housing and MRVP and AHVP vouchers).5 Some state-funded housing programs have their own Emergency Case Plan, and some follow the state's recommended plan.6
  • Section 8 Administrative Plan
    This document will tell you what preferences a housing authority or regional nonprofit housing agency has for its Section 8 vouchers.7
  • Tenant Selection Plan
    Many multifamily subsidized developments have what is called a Tenant Selection Plan. This spells out any preferences that a development may allow. If the development is state-funded, this plan should be available both from the manager of the particular development and from MassHousing. You can also download a sample Tenant Selection Plan from the Forms and Documents for Property Managers webpage on MassHousing8

What preferences are allowed in federally funded housing?

Most federally funded housing programs have no mandatory, or required, preferences. This includes federally funded public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and federal multifamily housing. For these programs, a housing agency or subsidized landlord gets to decide what preferences, if any, it will offer. Because preferences may be different, when you apply to a federal program, be sure to ask what preferences it has. You have a right to request this information.9

Common preferences

People who commonly receive preference include:10

  • Local residents
    This preference includes people who work or have obtained employment in the area.
  • People facing domestic violence
  • Working people
    This preference must always include people who cannot work due to disability or age.
  • People who are homeless or who will imminently become homeless due to no-fault eviction
  • People with disabilities
  • Veterans
  • Elderly or near-elderly

Extremely low income set-aside

In addition to preferences, housing agencies must make sure that each year a certain percentage of federal public housing apartments and Section 8 vouchers go to families who are considered extremely low income.11

For Section 8 vouchers, a very large portion (75%) of the vouchers issued each year by a housing authority must go to extremely low-income families. So even if you do not fit into a preference category, if you are extremely low-income, it is possible that you may get to the top of the waiting list before some applicants who applied after you did. Federal public housing programs must ensure that 40% of federal public housing units go to those with extremely low income.  Once they have met their extremely low income set-aside each year, some federal public housing programs may choose to fill any remaining slots that year with higher-income applicants, even if those applicants are not the next names on the waiting list.12

To be extremely low income, you must be at or below 30% of the area median income. The chart below tells you what that means for different areas in the state by household size for the year 2009.13

Extreme Low-Income Limits

Household Size
Barnstable, Berkshire County, Pittsfield, Franklin County, Springfield,
Fitchburg-Leominster, Western Worcester County, Dukes County
  $16,300 $18,650 $20,950 $23,300 $25,150 $27,050 $28,900 $30,750
  $18,950 $21,650 $24,350 $27,050 $29,200 $31,400 $33,550 $35,700
  $16,700 $19,100 $21,450 $23,850 $25,750 $27,650 $29,550 $31,500
Eastern Worcester Cty
  $21,500 $24,550 $27,650 $30,700 $33,150 $35,600 $38,050 $40,500
  $21,000 $24,000 $27,000 $30,000 $32,400 $34,800 $37,200 $39,600
Fall River
  $15,350 $17,550 $19,750 $21,950 $23,700 $25,450 $27,250 $29,000
  $17,800 $20,350 $22,900 $25,450 $27,500 $29,500 $31,550 $33,600
  $18,550 $21,200 $23,850 $26,500 $28,600 $30,750 $32,850 $35,000
Nantucket Cty
  $20,450 $23,350 $26,300 $29,200 $31,550 $33,850 $36,200 $38,550
New Bedford14
  $15,350 $17,550 $19,750 $21,950 $23,700 $25,450 $27,200 $28,950
  $17,800 $20,300 $22,850 $25,400 $27,450 $29,450 $31,500 $33,550

These figures change every year. See HUD for the most recent data.

What priorities are required in state-funded housing?

For state-funded housing programs, priorities are set by law.15 This includes state public housing, the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), and the Alternative Rental Voucher Program (AHVP). Housing authorities must give you priority if you:

  • Are homeless due to fire, natural disaster, an urban renewal project, or condemnation by a local board of health or inspectional services;
  • Have a housing emergency. This is defined by each housing authority,but includes people who are facing domestic violence, have severe medical emergencies, or are homeless or have been evicted through no fault of their own (or under a stay of execution in a no-fault eviction
  • Have an Alternative Housing Voucher for people with disabilities and their families and need to relocate;
  • or Already live in public housing and need to transfer for good cause.16

Within these priority categories, the state housing programs must also give preference to veterans and local residents.17 For example, if you qualify for a housing emergency priority and you are a veteran, you would be given preference over non-veterans who qualify for a housing emergency priority.

If you are homeless and qualify for a state preference, you can also choose a preference for local residence either in the last community where you were a tenant or where your shelter is located.

Some housing programs must also have an affirmative action plan to admit minority applicants.18

What preferences are allowed in multifamily subsidized housing?

Federally funded multifamily housing (not MassHousing)

Private owners of federally funded multifamily developments who receive funds directly from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are generally not required to have any particular preferences or priorities, but can choose what, if any, preferences or priorities they want to have.19

The only requirement is that, when establishing a priority, an owner cannot illegally discriminate.20 For example, an owner can establish a priority for people who work, but cannot discriminate against elderly people or people with disabilities who cannot work. So, if there is a priority for people who work, that priority must also be for elderly people and people with disabilities.

MassHousing multifamily housing: state or federally funded

Owners of subsidized developments who receive state or federal funds through MassHousing must give you a priority if you are:

  • Displaced by public action (urban renewal, condemnation) or natural disaster (fire, flood, earthquake21 or
  • Displaced by domestic violence, where you have moved out of an apartment because of domestic violence or you are living in housing with a person who engages in domestic violence and the violence has occurred within the last six months or is of a continuing nature. You must have at least one child under the age of 18 to qualify for this priority.

To find out what preferences apply at a particular development, you can ask for a copy of the Tenant Selection Plan. This plan should be available at the management office and also from MassHousing. Management is required to give it to you upon request.22

What can I do if I have been denied a preference or a priority?

If you have applied for a preference or priority and are denied, you should get notice of this. You have a right to challenge this denial. 23 The way to challenge this decision is to:

  • Write to the housing authority or subsidized landlord and request a conference to appeal the denial. Be sure to do this by the deadline stated in the denial letter you received.
  • Look at the exact wording of the particular priority or preference you requested and collect evidence that shows you meet the requirements of the priority or preference. Evidence can include letters and affidavits from people who know why you should qualify, court documents about your eviction case or domestic violence restraining order, Board of Health condemnation orders, and documents from your employer or doctor.
  • Bring all these documents and any witnesses or advocates who can help you to explain why you do qualify for the priority or preference to the hearing.


1 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207; State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09; Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 49.04(1 Alternative Housing Voucher Program(AHVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 53.04(1).

2 760 C.M.R. § 5.15.

3 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206(a)(4 Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.54(b) and (d)(1 State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 4.03(2 Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4.

4 24 C.F.R. § 960.202.

5 760 C.M.R. § 5.11, MHFA Model Tenant Selection Plan, REV 9/09, MassHousing.

6 For example, Boston, Cambridge and Somerville each have their own tenant selection plans that differ from the EOHLC Model Emergency Case Plan.

7 24 C.F.R. § 982.54.

8 MassHousing's model tenant selection plan was updated in 2009. If you have an old plan from a particular development, you should check to see if they have revised their plan to comport with MassHousing's updated plan. See MHFA Model Tenant Selection Plan, REV 9/09, MassHousing.

9 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.202(c)(2 Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.54; Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4.

10 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207.

11 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.202(b)(1) (at least 40% of federal public housing units must go to those with extremely low income Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.201(b)(2) (at least 75% of Section 8 vouchers must go to those with extremely low income unless HUD approves a lower percentage in accordance with subsection (b)(2)(ii)). 

12 24 C.F.R. § 903.2(c)(1)(v)(D).

13 HUD PDR Notice 2009-09 (March 19, 2009).

14 There are slight differences between the median incomes of the Fall River and New Bedford areas for larger families at 30% of median income. For Fall River residents, the 30% limit for 7-person families is $27,250 and for 8-person families is $29,000. For New Bedford area residents, the 30% limit for 7-person families is $27,200 and for 8-person families is $28,950. Because all other limits are identical, the editors grouped these two areas together for purposes of this table, and used the lower amount. It is unclear whether this slight variation was intended by HUD.


15 G. L. c. 121B, § 32.

16 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.03, 5.09, and 5.11; EOHLC Public Housing Notice 2003-08.

17 Veterans: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09(2)(a Local residents: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09(2)(b).

18 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.09(2) and 5.10(3).

19 Section 8 project-based: 24 C.F.R. § 5.655(c Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4. However, as discussed in section 6 of Chapter 4, there are statutory and/or regulatory preferences in Section 221(d)(3) and Section 236 developments for persons displaced by governmental action or presidentially declared disaster.

20 Federal: 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 et seq.; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1982; 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d et seq.; 29 U.S.C. § 794; 24 C.F.R. §§ 100 et seq.; 24 C.F.R. §§ 1.1 et seq.; 24 C.F.R. §§ 8.1 and 8.4; HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapters 2 and 4; State: G.L. c. 151B.

21 G.L. c. 23A, App. 1, § 1-7; MHFA Model Tenant Selection Plan, REV 9/09, § E2:00, MassHousing. Where priority is claimed on the basis of public action such as condemnation, the applicant will need to prove that he/she did not substantially contribute to the reasons for condemnation and that he/she has sought appropriate assistance to resolve the problem. A simple sanitary code report noting violations will be insufficient in and of itself, without condemnation, to meet this priority. If the MassHousing development is under the Section 221(d)(3) or Section 236 programs, there is also a federal statutory or regulatory preference for persons displaced by governmental action or presidentially declared emergency. See also HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 20091 (Aug. 2004), Chapter 4.

22 HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 20091 (Aug. 2004), Chapter 4.

23 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.208; Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.201(f State public housing, Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, and Alternative Housing Voucher Program: 760 C.M.R. § 5.13. A housing authority's Tenant Selection Plan may also provide for a hearing in these cases.

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