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Differences Between Public and Subsidized Housing

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

Different housing programs have different features. While they all 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 your landlord is

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.2

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 subsidy 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.

Who is 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. For more information, see Who Is Eligible.

Where you apply

To apply for public housing, you must submit an application to the housing authority in the city or town where you would like to live. There are 237 housing authorities in Massachusetts. You can apply to as many as you want. In some cases you may apply to the individual development and/or to the private management company that operates the development.

To apply for a Section 8 voucher, you can apply to any housing authority that runs a Section 8 voucher program. There are about 130 housing authorities that have a Section 8 program. You can also apply to one centralized Section 8 list where 40 housing authorities are currently participating. In addition, you can apply to any of the nine regional nonprofit housing agencies where Section 8 vouchers are available.

To apply for multifamily subsidized housing, you must apply at each development that you are interested in living in (or at the management company that operates that development). For more information, see How to Apply.

Where you can live

If you get a voucher, you can use it anywhere in the state; if it is a Section 8 voucher, 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. For more about this, see Who Has Priority.

Waiting lists

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. For more information about waiting lists, see How Waiting Lists Work.

How you are screened

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 Tenant Screening.

Finding 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 rent is calculated and recalculated

Tenants in public housing generally pay about 30% of their income for rent if utilities are included and less than 30% if utilities are not included.3 For state family public housing, this percentage is slightly higher as a result of a law passed in 2003.4 In public housing, each year the housing authority determines how much your rent will be based on your income and certain deductions and exclusions you are eligible for.5 If you report a change in your income or deductions during the year, your rent will usually be adjusted so that you pay the same percentage of your income for rent.6 For more information on public housing rents, see the section on Rent in Public Housing.

In voucher programs, tenants sometimes end up paying up to 40% of their income for rent (for the Section 8 voucher program, this can be more after the first year of your lease) because the market rent is more than the maximum subsidy the housing authority can pay.7  The housing authority must make sure that the rent your landlord is charging is reasonable by comparing it with rents for other similar apartments.8 If you are leasing an apartment for the first time with a Section 8 voucher and the proposed rent and tenant-paid utilities would make your portion of the rent more than 40% of your income, the housing authority will not agree to approve the apartment and you will be forced to find another apartment.

In multifamily subsidized housing, rents are calculated differently for different programs. In some programs, tenants' rents are set at a percentage of income similar to those for public housing. In some programs, rents may be set at a fixed amount, based on the number of bedrooms, which is lower than market-rate rents. In this situation, the rent does not change even if your income or deductions change.9 In some programs, your income may qualify you for an adjustment in your rent, even though there is still a basic rent that you have to pay which may be more than 30% of your income. Because the different program rules can make a big difference in whether or not an apartment is affordable for you, it is important to ask the landlord how the rent is calculated and how it changes if your income changes, when you are deciding whether to apply at a specific development.

If some or all of your family members are immigrants and you are in certain types of federal housing programs, your rent can be pro-rated to a higher amount because one or more family members do not have immigration status that is recognized by HUD.10 See Immigrants and Housing.

What your rights are once you are in

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. To get information about your rights once you are in a program, go to: Public Housing.

Your 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.11

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.12 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.13

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.

Evictions and loss of 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.14 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.15

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.16 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. You are not responsible for the housing authority's share of the rent if this happens.17 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. 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.18


1 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.

2 See G.L. c. 121B, §§ 3 and 5 about the structure of housing authorities; G.L. c. 121B, § 11 about the powers of housing authorities; G.L. c. 121B, §13 about the liability of housing authorities. EOHLC has created a list of all communities in Massachusetts, broken down by which ones have housing authorities, and for those which have housing authorities, what kind of housing programs they operate. For state family public housing the list also includes bedroom sizes. To see this list, see file: EOHLC_Units_2008.

3 Federal: 24 C.F.R. §§ 5.628, 960.253; State: 760 C.M.R. § 6.04.

4 Effective July 2003, tenants in state family public housing are required to pay 32% of their income if heat, cooking fuel and electricity are provided, 30% if one or more utility is provided, or 27% if utilities are not provided. G.L. c. 121B, § 32, 2nd paragraph; 760 C.M.R. § 6.04(1)(b). The statute setting rent for state elderly/disabled public housing, G.L. c. 121B, § 40(e), was not amended, but changes were made by regulation for that program to eliminate a deduction and effect cost savings. 760 C.M.R. §§ 6.04(1)(a) and 6.05(4)(a) (deduction where tenant is an elderly person or person with a disability limited to family public housing).

5 Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 5.609; State: 760 C.M.R. § 6.05.

6 Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 960.257; State: 760 C.M.R. § 6.04(5). In four situations in federal public housing, rent may not be affected. (A) Flat Rent: In federal public housing, the household may be paying a "flat rent" which is not based on income, and it may be that the "flat rent" is lower than what income-based rent would be. If, however, a tenant is on a "flat rent," and an income-based rent would be lower due to a decline in income, the tenant can request to be switched to an income-based rent. (B) Decline in Income Due to Welfare Sanction: In federal public housing and in the Section 8 tenant-based voucher program, if the tenant's income decreased because welfare benefits were reduced or terminated due to certain types of sanctions (failure to comply with work requirements, or fraud), the rent cannot be reduced for the period of the sanction. (C) Pro-Ration: If one or more household members do not have citizenship or "eligible non-citizen" status (see Immigrants and Housing), the rent may be pro-rated, or set higher than it usually would be; therefore a decline in income may result in some adjustment to the rent, but not a full adjustment; (D) Minimum Rent: The tenant may already be paying a minimum rent (up to $50/month, depending on the housing authority's policy). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1436a and 1437a; 24 C.F.R. §§ 5.520 (pro-ration), 5.615 (welfare sanctions), 5.630 (minimum rent), and 960.253(b) (flat rent).

7 Section 8 See 24 C.F.R. § 982.508. Mass. Rental Voucher Program. In 2005 the State Legislature capped the tenant's portion of the rent to no more than 40% of income. See EOHLC's MRVP Notice 2005-1, on file at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, 760 C.M.R. § 49.05.

8 See 24 C.F.R. § 982.507.

9 HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3, REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 5.

10 42 U.S.C. § 1436a; 24 C.F.R. Part 5, Subpart E.

11 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).

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

13 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).

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

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

16 24 C.F.R. § 982.311(b see also EOHLC MRVP Notice 2001-03, on file at Mass. Legal Services.

17 24 C.F.R. § 982.310(b Curtis v. Surrette, 49 Mass. App. Ct. 99 (2000).

18 24 C.F.R. § 982.314(e)(2). In many instances, the owner may not be able to show a serious or repeated lease violation, or the parties may end up settling the case on terms that don’t result in a court determination that the tenant violated the lease. These are reasons that a housing authority should not bar a move during a pending eviction, since it may interfere with the landlord's and the tenant's working out a mutually acceptable resolution. On the other hand, sometimes the eviction may involve claims that the housing authority has an independent reason to investigate, like claims of violent or drug-related criminal activity or unauthorized household members.

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