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What Types of Vouchers Are There?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

A voucher is a kind of subsidy that allows a housing agency to pay a portion of your rent for an apartment that you must find in the private market. While the actual tenancy is between you and a private landlord, you also have a relationship with the housing authority or regional nonprofit housing agency that administers the voucher.

This means that the administering agency must:

  • approve the contract rent for the apartment,
  • determine how much your portion of the rent will be,
  • inspect the apartment periodically to be sure it is safe,
  • do a yearly review of your income and household composition, and
  • monitor the voucher to make sure that both you and landlord are complying with the rules of the program.

The largest voucher program is the federal Section 8 voucher program, which is also called the Housing Choice Voucher Program. There are about 68,791 Section 8 vouchers in Massachusetts. There are also a number of smaller Section 8 voucher programs for people with special needs. HOME federal affordable housing funds can also be used for tenant-based rental assistance similar to Section 8 vouchers.

There are also two state tenant-based voucher programs: the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), which currently has 3,600 tenant-based vouchers; and the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), for people with disabilities, which currently has 512 vouchers.

Section 8 vouchers

The Section 8 voucher program is funded by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).28 With a Section 8 voucher, you can live anywhere in Massachusetts. If you move, you can take the voucher with you and, after the first year, you can use it anywhere in the country.29

Section 8 vouchers are given out by roughly 130 housing authorities and 9 regional nonprofit housing agencies in Massachusetts. For a listing of authorities and agencies which administer the Section 8 program, see the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities website. The housing authority or regional nonprofit where you apply determines whether you are eligible for a voucher. It calculates how much your share of the rent is—usually between 30% and 40% of your income.30 While a housing agency is required to do an adult criminal record check, in general, landlords who take Section 8 are responsible for screening and selecting their own tenants.31 For more information, see Tenant Screening.

When you first get a Section 8 voucher, you have a certain period of time to find an apartment. This is called the search period. You must lease up with the voucher before the search period ends. All housing authorities and regional nonprofits must give you at least 60 days' search time. Each housing authority and regional nonprofit also sets its own policy about how much time it will extend this 60-day search period and for what reasons.32 The housing agency may also determine whether the search period should be frozen (suspended). Good reasons for extending or freezing your search period are that you have been hospitalized or are otherwise unable to engage in housing search for reasons beyond your control, or that you have submitted a request for an apartment to be approved and are waiting for a final decision.

A landlord who is willing to rent to a household with a Section 8 voucher holder submits a form called a request for tenancy approval to the housing authority or regional non-profit. This form must state the total rent to owner for the apartment and which utilities will be paid for by the landlord and by the tenant. The rentmust be reasonable, which means that it must be similar to the rents charged for unassisted private market apartments of similar size, amenities, and condition in the premises and in the community.33

In addition to the requirement that the rent to owner be reasonable, the housing authority must determine that the family's portion of the rent will not exceed 40% of income at initial lease-up. This means that the difference between the housing authority's payment standard (maximum subsidy payment) for the apartment and the tenant's portion of the housing costs (rent paid to the owner plus any tenant-paid utilities as determined by the housing authority's utility allowances) cannot be more than 10% of household income. Most housing authorities set their payment standards between 90% and 110% of the Fair Market Rents published by HUD each year. A higher payment standard may be established as a reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, which can allow them to rent more expensive units if needed.34 See the chart with the Fair Market Rents in Massachusetts.

Once a request for tenancy approval is submitted, the housing authority then approves or rejects this rent, inspects the apartment to make sure that it is habitable, and reviews the lease. For more information about finding an apartment with a Section 8 voucher, see Using a Section 8 Voucher.

Once an apartment is approved, the landlord and tenant sign a lease. Usually a lease has a term of one year. During this first year, the landlord can terminate your lease only for good cause—that is, if you violate your lease.35 If you want to move out in the first year of the lease, ordinarily you must get the landlord's agreement to break the lease. You may break the lease, however, if someone in the household is a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking, and you need to relocate in order to be safe.36 In addition, if the landlord fails to correct code violations cited by a city or state agency, you also have the right to break the lease with reasonable notice.37

At the end of the first year of the lease, a landlord can choose not to renew your lease without having to state a good cause. 38If you claim that the landlord's failure to renew is really because she is discriminating against you because you have a Section 8 voucher, the landlord may have to prove that you violated the lease or that the landlord has a business reason for not renewing it.39 For more information about housing discrimination and your rights, see Discrimination.

In addition to your relationship with the landlord, under the Section 8 voucher program you have an ongoing relationship with the local housing authority or regional nonprofit agency and have to report on your income and household composition. The housing agency can terminate you from the Section 8 program if it believes that you have violated any Section 8 program rules (for example, not properly reporting income or family composition, or engaging in fraud). If this happens, you can request an informal hearing to show why you should not be dropped from the program.40

Useful websites:

Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (tenant-based vouchers)

The Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) is a state-funded voucher program.41 There are two components to this program: tenant-based (or mobile) vouchers, and project-based (non-mobile) vouchers. Project-based units are discussed below under multifamily housing. There are now only about 2,000 MRVP tenant-based vouchers and 3,000 project-based vouchers in existence.42 See the Rental Voucher Program of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities website for a listing of housing authorities that administer the MRVP program.

MRVP vouchers are given out by housing authorities and regional nonprofit housing agencies, which determine eligibility and generally conduct tenant screening. The actual tenancies are with private owners. If you have an MRVP tenant-based voucher, you can live anywhere in Massachusetts—with one exception: you cannot relocate or move to another city or town if the apartment is located in an area where 40% or more of the people live at or below the Federal Poverty Level.43 See the chart for the Federal Poverty Levels. You cannot use an MRVP voucher outside of Massachusetts.

MRVP allows a 120-day search period to find an apartment. You must lease up with the voucher before the search period ends. This search period may be suspended for one 30-day period or less if you are unable to search for housing because of a hardship. If you find an apartment, the owner must submit a request for program participation and certification from the local board of health that the apartment is in good condition. When the owner submits a request for program participation, the search period is suspended until you lease up this unit. If you are not able to lease that apartment, the voucher is reactivated for the rest of the 120 days.44

For an MRVP tenant-based voucher the tenant family cannot pay more than 40% of income for its share of the rent. The value of the subsidy depends on your income, the number of bedrooms, and the geographic area. There is no utility allowance or heat deduction for the MRVP program.45 You may have difficulty renting or relocating with an MRVP voucher because housing authorities usually pay a landlord less than what they pay for the Section 8 program.46

Owners who accept an MRVP tenant must have a written lease and sign an MRVP lease addendum. This guarantees that during the one-year lease term you will not be evicted except for good cause and your rent is limited to that set in the lease.47

As with the Section 8 voucher program, you will have an ongoing relationship with staff at the local housing authority or regional nonprofit agency. You will have to report regularly on your income and household composition, and can have your assistance terminated if you violate program rules or are evicted for a lease violation. You can request an informal hearing if the housing agency is proposing to terminate you from the program.48

Alternative Housing Voucher Program

The Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP) is a state-funded voucher program created in 1995.49 There are currently about 500 AHVP vouchers in use in the state.50

AHVP provides vouchers to people with disabilities who are under 60 years of age and their families who are on waiting lists for state public elderly/disabled housing at housing authorities that have rented 13.5% of their apartments to non-elderly disabled tenants. AHVP waiting lists open and close periodically as additional funding is released to housing authorities by EOHLC (formerly DHCD).

As with the Massachusetts Rental Housing Voucher program, you must find an apartment within 120 days of getting a voucher. This search period can be "frozen" or suspended for one 30-day period or less if you are unable to do housing search because of a hardship. Your share of the rent is 30% of income (if utilities are included), or 25% of income (if utilities are not included). As with state public housing, if you have to pay for heat, there is an additional heat deduction.51 EOHLC places a limit on the amount of rent that may be approved for apartments in the AHVP depending on bedroom size and geographic region. If the rent requested by the owner exceeds this limit or ceiling, it cannot be approved, even if the tenant is willing to pay the difference between the rent demanded and the ceiling rent. You can use your voucher anywhere in the state, but you cannot relocate to another city or town if the apartment is located in an area where 40% or more of the people live at or below the Federal Poverty Level.52 See the Federal Poverty Levels chart. You cannot use an AHVP voucher outside of Massachusetts.

AHVP tenants are required to continue to keep their names on the lists for other housing programs, and their leases can be terminated if other public or subsidized housing becomes available.53 As with the MRVP tenant-based voucher program, assistance can be terminated for failure to comply with program rules, but the tenant is entitled to a hearing process with the housing agency to contest this action.54

DMH rental assistance program

The Department of Mental Health (DMH) also operates a state-funded rental subsidy program, separate from the MRVP and AHVP programs.55 Some of this assistance is tenant-based, and some is project-based. You must be eligible for state public housing tenant selection criteria and also be in need of supportive residential services as determined by DMH. Service providers select residents to occupy eligible units, and the local housing authority determines the rent and pays the subsidy. Your rent is set at 30% of income if you pay for some or all of your utilities, and 35% of income if you do not pay for any utilities.  There are approximately 800 apartments in this program.

Specialized Section 8 voucher programs

In addition to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, there are some other types of Section 8 vouchers in use that have specific purposes. They include:

Section 8 Mainstream Program for people with disabilities

Some housing authorities have obtained additional funding for Section 8 vouchers for households where one or more family member has a disability. The waiting list for Mainstream Program vouchers is usually shorter than for other types of Section 8 vouchers. Only a family that is income eligible and includes a person with a disability may receive a Mainstream Program voucher.56

Section 8 Family Unification Program

Some housing authorities and regional nonprofit agencies have obtained extra funding from HUD for the Family Unification Program. It is for two groups of people: (1) battered women and their children who have been displaced because of battering and who have not secured permanent housing large enough for the entire family; and (2) families with children in foster care placement who have substantially complied with all the Department of Children and Families (DCF, formerly known as the Department of Social Services (DSS)) service plan tasks, but who do not have permanent or adequate housing to which their children can be returned. Clients must have an open DCF case and must be referred by DCF.57

Section 8 Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program

The Family Self-Sufficiency program is open to all households that have a Section 8 voucher. The way it works is that a housing authority enters into a five-year contract with a participating family, and with the participant establishes goals and describes the various work-related activities which the participant agrees to do. As the participant's income and rent share increase, an escrow account is established by the housing authority to set aside funds for the participant at the end of the program. Upon successful completion of the program, the participant can use these funds for any purpose, such as homeownership, starting a business, paying off loans, or going back to school. The participant is also able to use the money in the escrow account during the five-year contract term as long as it is for work-related purposes, such as paying car insurance, buying a uniform, or enrolling in a job-related course.58

Section 8 Homeownership Option

Housing authorities may choose to participate in the Section 8 homeownership option and use their regular Section 8 vouchers to cover homeownership expenses for a home that the participant has purchased.59 Housing authorities may establish their own eligibility criteria for this program in their Annual Plan, which apply in addition to minimum criteria required by HUD. The participant must obtain financing elsewhere and find other means to cover down payment and closing costs. There is a 10-year maximum time limit on assistance; however, special exceptions on eligibility criteria and the length of assistance may apply to elderly/disabled participants.60

There are approximately 183 Section 8 Homeownership vouchers administered by 29 housing authorities in Massachusetts. To find out if your community has a Section 8 Homeownership Program, contact your public housing authority or the HUD Boston office.

Section 8 Project-Based Voucher (PBV) Program

Each housing agency that administers a Section 8 voucher program is permitted to set aside up to 20% of its Section 8 inventory for project-based assistance which is linked with particular buildings. The housing agency may admit applicants from its regular Section 8 voucher list, or it may have a special PBV waiting list. If you have PBV assistance, your rent is limited to 30% of income, and you can be evicted only for good cause. After the first year of occupancy, you can request to relocate and to be issued a tenant-based Section 8 voucher. If a voucher is not immediately available, you should get priority to receive the next voucher or other tenant-based rental assistance that becomes available.61 There are approximately 1,259 apartments assisted through the Section 8 PBV program in Massachusetts; an additional 212 apartments are aided through an older program called the Project-Based Certificate (PBC) program, which is in the process of being converted to PBV assistance.62

Section 8 Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (VASH) Program

This is a program established by HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The program is targeted to homeless disabled veterans who are Section 8 eligible and who have had severe psychiatric and/or substance abuse disorders. Participants must agree, as a condition for the subsidy, to participate in ongoing treatment. Case management and clinical services are provided by VASH. All applicants must be referred to EOHLC by VASH staff. Subsidies are distributed throughout Greater Boston and the North Shore regions.63

Section 8 Housing Options Programs (HOP)

HOP is a collaborative effort of the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC), the Department of Mental Health (DMH), the Department of Developmental Services (DDS, formerly the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR)), the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), and the Mass. Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). The program combines Section 8 vouchers with support services. HOP subsidies are allocated by disability with appropriate services provided to each disability group. Clients must be disabled persons who are homeless or living in transitional housing, and must be referred to EOHLC by the lead service agency, the Justice Resource Institute (JRI) Health staff.

  • See JRI for more information

Designated Vouchers

In some instances, federal law permits housing authorities and owners of certain project-based Section 8 multifamily housing to restrict the number of non-elderly disabled households that can occupy elderly/disabled public or assisted housing.64 When HUD has permitted this, it usually also authorizes an additional set-aside of Section 8 vouchers for regional nonprofit housing agencies or for the housing authority designated for non-elderly disabled households whose housing opportunities are limited due to the restrictions. You need to inquire at your regional nonprofit housing agency or local housing authority to determine whether it has such vouchers.

Federal HOME tenant-based rental assistance (TBRA) program

The HOME program, a federally funded housing program that is not part of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, provides funding directly to states, cities, and towns for a variety of housing purposes, including tenant-based rental assistance (TBRA). If the state, city, or town has chosen to use HOME funds in this manner, it must have written tenant selection policies and criteria. The term of the rental assistance may not exceed 24 months, but it may be renewed if there are sufficient funds. The lease term must be for at least one year, and can be terminated only for good cause. Rent is generally set at 30% of adjusted income.65

Not all of the HOME participating jurisdictions in Massachusetts have HOME TBRA. There are about 2,000 HOME TBRA units as of June 30, 2009. Many large communities do not have any HOME TBRA units, while there are substantial programs administered by the consortia in Peabody, Lynn, Somerville, and Springfield, and also by EOHLC.66

If an agency administers both HOME TBRA and Section 8 assistance, participants in the HOME program qualify for tenant selection preferences for the Section 8 program to the same extent as when they initially received the HOME assistance. If the agency gave a preference for homeless applicants, they would not lose that preference on the Section 8 list. HOME TBRA is therefore often referred to as a "bridge" subsidy. HOME TBRA can also be used to pay for security deposits.67


28 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o 24 C.F.R. Parts 5 and 982.

29 24 C.F.R. § 982.353(b), as amended by 73 Federal Register 72336 (Nov. 28, 2008 Williams v. Hanover Housing Authority, 871 F. Supp. 527 (D. Mass. 1994).

30 24 C.F.R. §§ 5.609, 5.611 and 5.628; 24 C.F.R. § 982.508.

31 24 C.F.R. § 982.307. See G.L. c. 6, § 172; 803 C.M.R. §§ 1.00 et seq. (Criminal and Sex Offender Registries).

32 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.302 and 982.303.

33 24 C.F.R. § 982.507. The housing agency also must write into its Section 8 administrative plan the method it uses to determine whether a rent is reasonable. 24 C.F.R. § 982.54(d)(15).

34 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.4, 982.305(a)(5), 982.503, and 982.505.

35 Some Section 8 leases still have an indefinite renewal term. You should read your lease to see if it has this clause, because, if it does, good cause would always be required to terminate the lease. HUD Notice PIH 96-23 (HA), Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996 Statutory Changes Affecting the Administration of the Section 8 Certificate, Voucher, and Moderate Rehabilitation Programs (May 1, 1996 Viaud v. Wright, Boston Housing Court, No. 99-SP-01337 (Daher, C.J., May 17, 1999 Unaegbu v. Baez, Boston Housing Court No. 96-SP-03547 (Winik, J., July 18, 1996). In addition, renewal terms should generally be for a year's term, and the court may otherwise construe a monthly renewal term to be an indefinite term requiring good cause. See Lambert v. Maloney, Boston Housing Court No. 04-SP-02013 (Winik, J., Aug. 12, 2004 Mutual Devel. Co. v. Howard, Quincy District Court No. 0556-SU-703 (Coven, J., Nov. 7, 2005).

36 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(r)(5 24 C.F.R. 982.353(b), as amended by 73 Federal Register 72336 (Nov. 28, 2008).

37 G.L. c. 111, § 127L. Similar rights may exist under the doctrine of constructive eviction for severe interferences with quiet enjoyment without the same notice and time period requirements as in this statute.

38 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.309 and 982.310.

39 G.L. c. 151B, § 4(10).

40 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.551-982.555.

41 760 C.M.R. § 49.00.

42 See Affordable Housing Guidebook for Massachusetts, July, 2008. 

43 760 C.M.R. § 49.08(7).

44 760 C.M.R. § 49.08(1).

45 760 C.M.R. § 49.05; EOHLC MRVP Notice 2005-1, on file at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Note, however, that for participants residing in project-based units who do not pay for heating separately, the participant’s share of rent must be set at a minimum of 35% of participant’s net income, as compared to a minimum of 30% of net income when heat is paid separately. 760 C.M.R. § 49.05(5).

46 760 C.M.R. § 49.08.

47 760 C.M.R. § 49.09(3).

48 760 C.M.R. § 49.03(2 760 C.M.R. §§ 6.02(2) and 6.08(4)(a).

49 760 C.M.R. § 53.00.

50 See Affordable Housing Guidebook for Massachusetts, July, 2008. 

51 760 C.M.R. §§ 6.02(2) and 6.05(4)(d).

52 760 C.M.R. § 53.05(2).

53 This is a requirement of participation in the AHVP program, and an owner may run afoul of anti-discrimination laws if s/he refuses to enter into an AHVP tenancy because of this. 760 C.M.R. § 53.02; G.L. c. 151B, § 4(10 DiLiddo v. Oxford St. Realty, Inc., 450 Mass. 66 (2007).

54 760 C.M.R. § 53.03; 760 C.M.R. §§ 6.02(2) and 6.08(4)(a).

55 760 C.M.R. § 38.00.

56 Funds and criteria for Mainstream Section 8 vouchers are published by HUD in Notices of Funding Availability (NOFAs) in the Federal Register, and housing agencies and nonprofit organizations can apply for such funds. See, for example, 68 Federal Register 21002 (April 25, 2003) (SuperNOFA). The vouchers are administered in the same way as other Section 8 vouchers. 24 C.F.R. Part 982.

57 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(x).

58 42 U.S.C. § 1437u; 24 C.F.R. Part 984.

59 If a housing agency has opted not to implement a Section 8 homeownership program, it must consider the homeownership option as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. 24 C.F.R. § 982.625(d)(2).

60 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(y 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.625-982.643.

61 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o)(13 24 C.F.R. Part 983, as revised at 70 Federal Register 59892 et seq. (Oct. 13, 2005).

62 For the Project-Based Certificate (PBC) program, see 24 C.F.R. § 983.10. The regulations used for this program are not the current Section 8 Project-Based Voucher (PBV) regulations at 24 C.F.R. Part 983, but the version of 24 C.F.R. Part 983 that was in existence as of May 1, 2001. Regarding renewal and conversion of PBC assistance to PBV assistance, see HUD Notice PIH 2008-14 (HA), Renewal of Project-Based Certificate Housing Assistance Payments Contracts (Mar. 18, 2008). Section 8 PBC assistance is not convertible into a tenant-based voucher after one year, unlike the  PBV program.

63 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o)(19), Federal Register 25026 (May 6, 2008), as revised at 73 Federal Register 28863 (May 19, 2008).

64 42 U.S.C. § 1437e (public housing 42 U.S.C. §§ 13611 et seq. (covered multifamily Section 8 project).

65 24 C.F.R. §§ 92.209, 92.216, and 92.253.

66 Reports can be obtained from HUD regarding localities' utilization of HOME funds under Performance SNAPSHOT Reports.

67 42 U.S.C. § 12742(a)(3)(D) and (E).

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