If making your rent each month means bottoming out your checking account, you aren’t alone. According to the Center for Housing Policy, housing and transportation costs have increased 44% since 2000, while household incomes have increased by only 25%. Today, moderate-income households spend a whopping 59% of their annual income on housing and transportation – more than ever before. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 4.9 million U.S. households receive some sort of federal assistance.
While government-subsidized rent certainly isn’t the only option you have, it can be the most reliable if you qualify. Taking the first steps towards filing for federal assistance can seem daunting, but with the right research, it’s easier than you might think.
Federally Funded Housing Options
1. Public Housing
Public housing is a federally subsidized type of rental property. Depending on where you live, it may be an apartment complex, a series of duplex houses, or a cluster of private houses. In my neighborhood, public housing facilities are typically five or more apartment buildings grouped into one area, roughly the size of a city block. These areas are usually gated and may have small parks, pools, and other green spaces.
Complexes such as these are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but are managed by local housing authorities. Moving into public housing is similar to renting from a private landlord: You have to meet the housing authority’s qualifications and sign a lease. But unlike renting from a private landlord, the housing authority helps to determine how much rent you pay – at least $25 or at most 30% of your monthly income, according to HUD guidelines.
To qualify for public housing you must:
- Meet low-income limits in your state
- Be a U.S. citizen or have an eligible immigration status
- Provide references
- Pass a background check
- Meet with a housing authority agent in person
According to HUD, 1.2 million households are currently living in public housing. Public housing facilities have limited space, and you may wait for several months (or even years in some areas) before a unit opens up in your area. If there are no openings when you apply, you’ll be put on a wait list.
2. Privately-Owned Subsidized Housing
If you can’t afford to wait for government-run subsidized housing, you can go the privately-owned route. These housing complexes are owned by private landlords and property management companies. In exchange for a tax credit, they are required to offer at least some of their apartments at a reduced rate to low-income families. These complexes are also called “mixed income housing,” because some families pay a reduced rate while others pay the full market rent. They look similar to any large apartment complex.
How much rent you must pay depends upon various factors. Some landlords offer a flat reduced rate for anyone who qualifies, while other landlords base your rent on your monthly income. Generally, the less you earn each month, the less rent you have to pay.
To qualify for privately-owned subsidized housing you have to:
- Make less than the maximum monthly income amount (this varies by housing complex and by state)
- Pass a background check
- Meet the landlord’s qualifications to rent, which could include passing a credit check.
You’ll need to apply directly through the landlord to get a reduced rate. However, you can find available complexes in your area by using HUD’s low-rent apartment search function.
3. Rent Payment Assistance
The Housing Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, is a bit different from subsidized housing. Under this program, you receive a voucher that you can use to rent from private landlords and corporate apartment complexes. This program gives you more freedom regarding where you live. However, the property management company must be on the Housing Voucher Program’s list of approved landlords.
With Section 8, you pay a portion of your rent and your local public housing authority will pay the remainder. Generally, the PHA sets a base voucher amount based on current market prices in your area. An agent then deducts 30% of your monthly income from the base amount to determine your monthly assistance, according to HUD. You can choose to rent a property that costs that amount, or rent one that costs more if you can afford to pay the difference.
Qualifying for the Housing Voucher Program can be a little tricky. To do so, you need to:
- Meet your state’s low-income requirements
- Find a Section 8-approved property
- Pass a background and/or credit check performed by the landlord
- Provide references to the landlord
Like public housing, the Housing Voucher Program can have long wait times. You may be wait-listed for several months (or possibly more than a year) after you apply before you start to receive assistance.
4. Rental Assistance in Rural Areas
If you live in a rural area, you might qualify for a special type of private subsidized housing offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Under this program, property owners receive special tax incentives for offering units at a reduced rate to low-income families. To qualify, your rent must exceed 30% of your household’s adjusted income (after qualifying discounts), according to the USDA. You must also live in or be willing to move to an approved rental property.
To apply for the Rural Rental Assistance program, you need:
- Proof that your income level is at or below the USDA’s income limit
- Proof that your rent exceeds 30% of your income
- To pass the landlord’s requirements, which can include a credit and/or background check
Unlike other low-income housing options, the Rural Rental Assistance program is managed by the USDA. To apply, contact your local USDA Rural Field Development office. Use the USDA Service Locator to find the contact information.
Beyond federally managed assistance programs, you might want to investigate programs run by your state government and those run by charitable organizations. For example, state programs can include emergency rent assistance options; if you find yourself in a bind and are at risk of eviction, you might qualify for one-time assistance to help get you over the hump. Or, if you have problems making your money last, your state may offer free money management counseling.
Many charities also offer one-time rent assistance. For example, a charity might be able to help you pay a security deposit to move into a new rental.
These programs and their eligibility requirements vary by area. The easiest way to find out what’s available is to contact your local housing authority office.
How to Apply
While most programs are federally managed, applications and the distribution of funds are handled on a state level, and state application processes can vary widely. While some states allow you to apply online, some require you to mail in applications, and others prefer that you visit the office in person.
To simplify the process, first contact your local housing authority. An agent there can tell you where and how to apply, as well as what state and charitable programs are available. You can find an office in your area on HUD’s Local Renting Information website.
Before you apply, make sure you have the following documentation ready:
- Your driver’s license or state-issued I.D.
- A copy of your lease agreement
- Recent pay stubs
- A copy of a recent bank statement
- Social Security numbers for everyone in your household
Struggling to pay your rent can be terrifying, but there is help available. Start by contacting a Housing Authority agent, apply for any programs that are available to you, and keep looking through smaller, lesser-known assistance programs that you may have missed. Remember that these things take time – most programs have more applicants than they have funding for, and wait lists aren’t uncommon.
Have you ever applied for one of these programs? Did you receive rental assistance?