Is my rent always based on my income?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed April 12, 2019

No. There are some situations in both state and federal public housing where the rent is not going to be a percentage of your income.


If you live in federal public housing in Cambridge and Holyoke, the housing authority has received special permission to create its own rules about how to set rents. 5

Federal public housing

Minimum rent

In federal public housing, housing authorities can charge a minimum rent of $0-$50 per month. For more information, see If I have no income, can I be charged rent?.

Flat rent

In federal public housing, housing authorities must establish a maximum flat rent for each apartment.6 This will vary by bedroom size, condition, location, age of the unit, and other factors. Make sure you know what the flat rent is for your apartment. You will have a choice of paying either 30% of income or the flat rent. If you have a high income and the flat rent is less than 30% of your household’s income, you should choose the flat rent. If you are paying the flat rent and at any time you are unable to pay that amount because of a financial hardship, you can ask to return to an income-based rent.7 If you choose a flat rent, the housing authority must re-examine your income at least once every three years.

A number of years ago, some housing authorities set fairly low flat rents. Starting in 2014, Congress required that generally the flat rent had to be at least 80% of the Section 8 Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the area. The FMRs are revised every year, and usually increase, but not always. If there is a change in the FMRs, housing authorities must revise their flat rents.

HUD also provides that if the flat rent has been lower than 80% of FMR, the increase in the flat rent for a household can be phased in over three years so that the increase does not exceed 35% in any given year.8

Pro-rated rent and immigrants

If you live in federal public housing and your household includes immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or who are not eligible noncitizens (as defined by federal regulation), the family usually must pay a pro-rated rent .8 This figure is often much higher than the regular rent.9 For more information about pro-rated rent, see Legal Tactics: Finding Public and Subsidized Housing, What is pro-rated assistance or pro-rated rent? Booklet 9 Immigrants and Housing .

Welfare sanctions and rent

If you live in federal public housing and your Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) grant was lowered because the Department of Transitional Assistance sanctioned you for welfare fraud or for not doing its required work program, your public housing rent will not be lowered. 10

State public housing

Minimum rent

In state public housing, there is a minimum rent of $5 a month.11 For more information, see If I have no income, can I be charged rent?.

Overhoused family that refuses a transfer

In state public housing, if a family is overhoused , which means that the apartment is designed for a larger family, the housing authority is required to transfer this family to an appropriately sized apartment.12


If a 3-person family is living in a 4-bedroom apartment, a housing authority can require them to transfer to a smaller unit.

If the family refuses to transfer to an available apartment, the housing authority is allowed to charge 150% of the income-based rent .13 This means that if the household would have paid $300 per month under the regular income-based rules, the housing authority can charge $450 until the family agrees to move to a smaller unit. See If my housing authority says I am overhoused, what can happen to my rent?

For more about transfer, see Transfers in Public Housing: A Know Your Rights Guide.

5 Cambridge Housing Authority has a different rent formula for its federal housing programs under a demonstration program called “Moving to Work.”

6 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(a)(2)(B)(i 24 C.F.R. § 960.253(b).

7 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(a)(2)(C 24 C.F.R. § 960.253(f). The housing authority must adopt written policies for determining when payment of flat rent is a financial hardship. Such policies must provide that financial hardship include the following situations: (1) the family has experienced a decrease in income because of change in circumstances, including loss or reduction of employment, death in the family, or reduction in or loss of earnings or other assistance; (2) the family has experienced an increase in expenses because of changed circumstances for medical costs, child care, transportation, education, or similar items; and (3) such other situations as determined by the housing authority.

8 See HUD Public & Indian Housing (PIH) Notice 2017-23, issued Nov. 30, 2017. The requirement that the flat rent generally had to be at least 80% of the HUD FMR was first Included in the 2014 HUD Appropriations Act. The 2015 HUD Appropriations Act revised this slightly to permit use of the Small Area FMR instead and to permit PHAs to seek a lower level with appropriate documentation of market conditions.

9 Pro-rated rent is based on the percentage of household income attributable to citizens or eligible noncitizens . See 24 C.F.R. § 5.520. For definition of eligible noncitizen, see 42 U.S.C. § 1436a.

10 This pro-rated rent is based on the percentage of the income of household members who are citizens or eligible noncitizens . See 24 C.F.R. § 5.520.

11 42 U.S.C. 1437j(d-g 24 C.F.R. § 5.615. Find more information about welfare sanctions from HUD at:

12 G.L. c. 121B, § 32. DHCD has issued no regulations or notices about minimum rents.

13 G.L. c. 121B, § 32; 760 C.M.R. § 6.04(1)(c). Per 760 C.M.R. § 6.03, overhoused means a tenant household that the housing authority has determined, based upon the composition of the household, to be occupying a unit consisting of more bedrooms than is appropriate for the household size.

14 G.L. c. 121B, § 32; 760 C.M.R. § 6.04(1)(c).

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