The Ins and Outs of Public Housing

Updated: Jan 19

It is the goal and the dream of every family to live in a decent and secure home, but for many affording rent on a low income makes this goal extremely challenging. There is no doubt that housing is becoming less affordable with 37.25 million people living below the poverty line in the US for 2019-2020. There is immense pressure on low to middle-income families to find affordable rent in neighborhoods that offer safety, security, and value.


This leads us to public housing…


According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are around 4.8 million people dependent on government assistance programs and public housing. People from all walks of life, families, and singles rely on public housing to provide safe residence but what exactly is public housing and how does it work?


In this guide, we answer some of the most pressing public housing questions so you can decide whether it is for you, how to apply, and the alternatives in the affordable housing market.


Let’s start by looking at what public housing really is.


What is Public Housing?


Public housing is government-owned housing and rented to low-income individuals and families, seniors, and those with disabilities. It is meant to provide a safe residence for tenants and ranges from affordable apartments to rent in complexes to modest single-family homes.


It is one of the most commonly sought-after rental assistance programs in the US along with housing voucher programs.


Public housing stats infographic
Who Lives in Public Housing - Infographic

The HUD or Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees and manages public housing programs. There are more than 2000 agencies that handle public housing operations across the country. Some of these agencies have partnered with private developers to make more affordable housing available to more people provided it is operated under the guidelines of the HUD public housing regulations.


The Difference Between Public Housing and Section 8


Public housing is government-owned and runs with rental units available at below the market rate for eligible singles and families (primarily those who earn a low income). These rental units can be found in all 50 states.


Fourth of July pin
You can find a place to call home that you can afford

Section 8, the Housing Voucher program, provides renters with slightly more flexibility compared to public housing. You can choose to rent a unit anywhere in the country that accepts the housing voucher. The rent that is charged by the housing authority overseeing the program should be reasonable and fall within the designated income brackets.


You can learn more about the Section 8 Housing Voucher Program Here.


What Does Public Housing Look Like?


The rentals that are designated for public housing are usually apartments or rental units that are constructed according to the US Code of Federal Regulations.


The most pressing question is, what exactly does public housing looks like?


Is it only available in so-called “unsafe” neighborhoods or areas with little recreation and opportunity?


Well, public housing can be found in all types of neighborhoods with some proving more favorable than others.

To help you find rentals that are suited to your needs, look at where the rentals are located that you are interested in. Consider nearby schools if you have children or access to medical facilities particularly for the elderly. A little bit of research into what residents are saying about their housing can also help you decide whether the program is right for you.



people watching the sunset on a beach
Consider the pros and cons of public housing


Different Types of Public Housing


Public housing is diverse, and you can find it in all shapes and sizes. The most common types of public housing include the following:


  • Congregate residences

  • High rise apartments

  • Complexes with more than 3 residential dwellings

  • Shelters and group homes

  • Temporary lodging or housing

  • Accommodation at public schools, colleges, or universities.


As you can see, there are many different types of affordable housing or public residences available.



Housing development
As of 2021, more affordable housing developments are underway

Where Can I Find Public Housing?


You can find programs for public housing across the country. As the government has focused its efforts on making more homes available to those who cannot afford or maintain their rent, as of 2019 approximately 47% of housing was located in low to moderate-income cities and neighborhoods.


If you are looking for public housing assistance, contact the HUD who can help you with the appropriate type of rental program for your needs.


How Does Public Housing Work?


It works by applying through the HUD for the program that is available in your area.

Before applying, you will need to meet the eligibility criteria for this particular housing program.


The Requirements for Public Housing Include:


An applicant or family must be deemed as earning a low income. Low income is defined as earnings below 50-80% of the AMI (Average Median Income). Most of the families who are admitted into this type of housing program have an extremely low income.


You must meet the criteria for citizenship or relevant immigration status according to the federal government.


Financial documentation concerning your salary, outstanding debts, and related financial matters must be updated and submitted when requested.


Remember that public housing is not a handout. Most of the people and the families who rely on this type of program earn a weekly or monthly income and they pay for rent. The only difference is that the rent is much lower than what they would be charged in a privately owned development, complex, or building.


Jar with money
Think about affordable rent so you can save money

Am I Eligible for Affordable Housing Programs?


The best way you can determine eligibility is to follow the application criteria for the housing program of interest on the HUD or relevant housing authority’s website.


Some of the criteria you may come across in your application include:


  • Satisfying the HUD criteria concerning citizenship and immigration status.

  • Meet the designated criteria for housing applications as per the HUD’s housing regulation.

  • Satisfy screening measures that include a background check such as criminal history.

  • Family members should also not have a criminal record or history involving illicit drug use that may harm or disrupt the peace and well-being of other residents.

  • Financial documentation must be prepared and submitted upon request.


Can I Qualify for Affordable Housing with No Income?


Programs such as Section 8 Housing Vouchers are available for those who earn a low income. This means that your monthly income is less than 30-50% of the AMI. If you make below the AMI for a specific area, that includes no income, then you can qualify for affordable housing without an income.


What Will I Pay for Rent?


If you earn an income, you will pay around 30% of your earnings on the monthly rent. The rent for public housing is adjusted to accommodate the needs of its residents.


If you’re earning $3000 per month, your rent will be around $900 and this may exclude utilities. Always find out what is included in the rent and whether you’ll be required to pay any fees in addition to the rent.


Are There Public Housing Benefits?


Yes! There are many benefits for those who are interested in this type of government-assisted program. For low-income families who may have found it challenging to pay for rent in conventional homes and apartments, public housing offers the chance to rent your own home or unit but at a cost that you can afford.


Public housing has extended from living below the poverty line to low and moderate-income earners, which means that more people have access to housing than ever before. This also means that more people can avoid ending up homeless and continue to provide for their families or focus on achieving their goals.


The affordable rent makes it possible to dedicate more money to food, settling bills, medical care, and even perhaps saving towards buying a house.


Both singles, couples, and families can apply for an affordable rental. As long as your income meets the eligibility criteria for consideration and you do not have a criminal background as per the HUD's guidelines, you can qualify for low cost rentals.


Man jumping in the street
Think of ways an affordable home can change your life

Why is there a Long Waiting List for Public Housing?


There is an incredibly high demand for affordable housing across the US and unfortunately, the demand exceeds the supply. Some people are on waiting lists for several years and still have not been placed into a home.


Another reason for the limited housing availability is a lack of government funding for these programs.


The longest waiting lists are across the metropolitan areas compared to the outlying suburbs.

If you are on a waiting list, your best bet is to continue to check up on your status and to possibly speak to a housing agent for an update or more information. The alternative is to consider applying for the public housing lottery.


lottery balls
Take a chance with the housing lottery

What is the Public Housing Lottery?


Because of the long waiting lists, some housing agencies close applications at certain times of the year. For new applicants, it can take many years before agencies get to the bottom of the waiting list to consider your housing request.


For this reason, some agencies have what is called an affordable housing lottery. The lottery will pick people at random to add to the list. It is one of the ways that authorities have tried to assist people who may wait 3 to 5 years or more for their application to be reached let alone placed on the list!


Most affordable housing lotteries are available electronically so you can apply for participation online. You’ll also be notified of your placement online. Be sure to have the most recent financial documentation prepared as any late submissions will probably be skipped and the next lottery ranked individual will be considered.


Both Public Housing and Section 8 programs are part of the lottery program.


Applying for Affordable Housing


Affordable housing still has a long way to go to provide communities with the housing options that they need but there is no denying the important role that it plays in preventing homelessness. It also assists those who are moving out of abusive or violent living circumstances and need economic or temporary housing.


Public housing is government-run and developed for low income families. While there are long waiting lists when you apply for public housing, you may pursue affordable housing lotteries offered in your state or seek alternative rentals that are part of the low to mid-income sector.


No matter your reason for an affordable home, programs such as public housing, Section 8, and tax credit housing are available. It is up to you to consider the best rental, from the monthly rent to the location, so you find opportunities and pursue your dreams.



Child as an aspiring pilot
With the right housing, the future looks bright



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