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Although homeownership is considered the American dream, sometimes, it makes more sense to rent. When an individual has disabilities, there are some rental assistance programs that can help take the heat off of a person’s already-stressed finances.
Types of rental assistance
The types of rental assistance available generally fall into two public housing programs.
The first is called the Housing Voucher Choice Program. It provides qualifying individuals with a voucher in a pre-determined amount that is intended to either cover the entire cost of renting a privately-owned home or apartment, or at least defray that cost. This program was formerly called Section 8.
The second is referred to as project-based housing. Project-based rental units exist in HUD-supported apartment buildings that are owned and operated by local housing authorities.
Rental assistance programs include:
- Housing Voucher Program
- Project-Based Housing
- Rights and Responsibilities
These programs are detailed below.
Housing Choice Voucher Program
What is the Housing Choice Voucher Program?
The Housing Choice Voucher Program was created to place families that need housing assistance into privately-owned units that are dispersed throughout a community. The idea behind the program is that people that need financial support should live in a decentralized environment, as opposed to the project-based facilities that were typically consolidated in specific communities. Today, the housing voucher program is considered the most viable way to assist low income homeowners in securing safe housing.
The voucher program allows private landlords – whether it is a property management firm with multi-unit buildings or owners of a singular rental home to accept vouchers from the federal government as payment. However, there are a whole host of requirements that a landlord must meet to be able to take part in the program.
The requirements that a landlord must meet to take part in the voucher program include:
- The voucher must cover all, or most, of a tenant’s rent
- The house must meet sanitary and safety requirements set forth by the housing authority
- The home must be approved owned directly by the landlord
The voucher program will pay the landlord directly, not the tenant. For example, if it is determined that an applicant will receive a voucher for $450 per month, the landlord will receive a check from HUD in that amount. But if the actual rent is $500 per month, the remaining $50 will be paid by the tenant.
A positive aspects of the voucher program is that tenants have more control over where they live – they can find a unit on their own, and make a deal with a landlord regarding accepting the voucher as payment. The landlord, if he or she has never accepted a voucher, will need to undergo an inspection of the unit before a lease can be signed. The housing authority will also have to agree that the month rent is reasonable.
How does a person procure a housing voucher?
Vouchers are administered in most of the same ways that project-based housing is. Local housing authorities are granted a certain budget by HUD for vouchers; the authority must stay within that amount. The number of vouchers they can provide in a community depends on the amount of the individual vouchers, which are determined by an applicant’s income.
However, it is not only community-based housing authorities that administer vouchers. Sometimes, county housing departments, or state housing agencies have voucher budgets that far exceed those that are offered at the local level.
An applicant will be asked all of the same questions, and will need to provide all of the same information about their household to the authority.
An applicant’s income is the most important factor in qualifying for a voucher; all other issues are strictly between a landlord and tenant.
What role do local housing authorities, HUD, tenants and landlords play in the Housing Voucher process?
The housing voucher process is one that requires input from several sources. Once a family settles into a home, they not only have to meet HUD’s requirements, but they also must manage expectations from a third-party landlord. For the arrangement to work, it’s essential that all parties understand their roles.
Here’s a breakdown of every stakeholder’s role:
- HUD – HUD has the fiduciary responsibility for making payments to local housing authorities/grantors that enable renters to receive assistance. If HUD funds are pared down in federal budget negotiations, it’s possible that local housing authorities will have to cut the amount of individual vouchers, or provide fewer vouchers, to balance their books. HUD also pays associated fees to administer housing programs. HUD also monitors housing authorities to ensure they are meeting all federal requirements and provision.
- Housing authority/grantor – An authority will administer the voucher program locally, meaning that they conduct all of the due diligence required by the federal government to determine that an applicant can, in fact, receive assistance. Authorities must also evaluate private landlords to see that they meet the requirements to participate in the program.
- Landlord – A landlord must be willing to make any changes to his or her dwelling to bring bout compliance with the program. He or she must not charge excessive rents for a unit, and he must be able to make sure a unit is accessible if a lease is signed with a tenant that has a disability.
- Tenant – In a voucher situation, a tenant is required to locate the unit he or she would like to rent. He or she will have to come to an agreement with a landlord about accepting a voucher, and be willing to accept that a voucher may not cover an entire rental payment. He or she will also have to comply fully with the terms of the lease.
What are the income limits for a voucher?
Voucher eligibility is based on an applicant’s income and family size. The same guidelines are used for vouchers that are used for project-based housing.
What are the considerations for voucher assistance?
Voucher recipients must consider several factors when they lease a unit. Generally, if a landlord agrees to take part in the voucher program, or has taken vouchers from other tenants, he or she is committed to the program. However, when a lease ends, a landlord may decide not to accept a voucher, which means the tenant will likely need to move.
Luckily, vouchers are portable. A family may move if their needs change, or a landlord opts out of the program. Moves are permissible as long as family notifies the housing authority/grantor. A family may move anywhere in the United States as long as they lived in the jurisdiction of the authority that granted the voucher. The family must also notify the housing authority located in the community they move to.
What is project-based housing?
Project-based housing is mostly what most Americans think of when they consider the definition of public housing. High-rise apartments that are located in America’s populous metropolitan communities is what most people think of when they picture project-based housing; it’s important to remember that public housing is available in almost every community in the United States, including rural areas and suburbs.
Public housing facilities are owned by municipal housing authorities, but all authorities are overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. All HUD-backed facilities must undergo inspections, and meet physical requirements. In terms of individuals with disabilities, there are additional requirements that must be met.
These requirements include:
- Accessible design for at least five percent of units
- Common areas must be accessible
How does a person procure housing placement?
Because local housing commissions and authorities own the actual apartment facilities, a person will want to apply for housing assistance with the local authority. Often, housing commissions will have an application online, but other times, they will require a person to come into the commission offices to fill out paperwork. Most of the time, they will only take applications when they open their waiting list, which often has hundreds, if not thousands, of names on it.
A typical housing application will ask the following questions:
- What is your current living situation?
- How much is your household income (all members of a household)?
- Are you or any other member of your household employed?
- Do you have any savings or investments?
- What are your assets and/or financial obligations?
- How many people live in your household?
- How many of these individuals are 18 years old or younger?
- Are any members of a household disabled?
- Are any members of a household elderly?
There are several documents an applicant will need to provide, including:
- Recent pay stubs
- Tax forms
- Determinations of other sources of aid
- Proof of address
- Bank statements
- Birth certificates or driver’s license
As part of the application process, the authority will pull a copy of an applicant’s credit history. Although it stands to reason that an applicant that is under significant financial distress may have damaged credit, the authority will look at an applicant’s history of paying a mortgage, rent, and utilities. An applicant can be rejected for tenancy in a public housing facility based on his or her credit.
There will be a screening for suitability. This process gives the authority a chance to determine whether they should extend a lease to a potential tenant. This screening will look at the following factors:
- Ability to pay rent on time
- Ability to take care of the apartment
- A person’s criminal record
- Prior evictions
If a person has a prior drug conviction or has been evicted from a unit because of drug activity, he or she can be denied placement in a public housing unit, except under the circumstances that they have completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program. Housing authorities also reserve the right to exclude a family member with a criminal conviction from living on the premises.
What are the income limits for housing placement?
Eligibility is based on an applicant’s income and family size. However, as part of the process to determine an applicant’s eligibility, the authority/grantor will collect information about assets, savings and employment.
Currently, an applicant’s total annual income cannot exceed 50 percent of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which he or she lives. However, a housing authority must provide at least 75 percent of its available vouchers to applicants whose income does not exceed 30 percent of median income levels in the same area.
Because median incomes from community to community vary significantly, it is harder to determine income. Local housing authorities should be able to provide the local median income.
The amount of a voucher a family receives is calculated using a complex formula based on a standard that represents the typical rent found in a given geographical area. The voucher amount is determined using the lesser of the payment standard minus 30 percent of a family’s monthly adjusted income. A tenant may choose a unit that is blow, or above, the pre-determined standard.
Several other factors figure into the amount of rent an applicant will pay for at a housing facility, including:
- The size of the unit
- Where the unit is located
What are the considerations for project-based housing?
When entering into any rental agreement, an individual has to consider several factors. The most important of these is the location of the apartment, the sum that the housing authority is kicking in for rent, and whether it is going to meet the space and accessibility needs of a child or adult with a disability. Like all apartments, publicly-subsidized units are not one-size fits-all, and a parent must be comfortable with all of these factors before signing a lease.
Do individuals with disabilities have to wait for project-based placement and vouchers?
In most cases, yes. Once a family is determined to be eligible for assistance, he or she will be placed on a waiting list.
Local housing authorities are given leeway by HUD to establish some preferences for families in certain circumstances in a community, such as involuntary displacement, homelessness, or highly substandard housing. An authority may not agree to add names to a waiting list unless they officially open the list. If a wheelchair-accessible unity becomes available, HUD requires local authorities to offer it to the first name on the list that is mobility-impaired.
If there are no individuals on the premises that meet that requirement, it should be offered to the next individual with a disability on the list. However, if an individual with disabilities is next on the list, but accessible units are occupied, they must be offered the opportunity to move into a non-accessible unit.
If an applicant with disabilities requires a wheelchair-accessible unit, he or she will have to inform the housing specialist of this request. It’s illegal for a housing authority to inquire about the nature or severity of an individual’s disability, but if an accessible unit is requested, the authority may ask for supporting documentation.
Because the availability of subsidized housing units is insufficient to the present level of needs, it’s not uncommon for people on the waiting list to wait for several years to be able to move into a unit. For that reason, it’s important for parents to get on as many waiting lists in as many communities as possible, and to inquire about when authorities are opening their lists or accepting applications.
Rights and responsibilities
What are my rights as an individual with disabilities that is searching for housing?
Individuals with disabilities have broad rights when it comes to housing. In the past, housing discrimination has been a problem for individuals with disabilities; the Fair Housing Act aimed to eliminate those roadblocks, and provide a resource for people that feel their rights have been violated. The law was approved by the Legislature in 1968, and was amended to provide further protections 20 years later. The law is applicable to private tenants and public tenants.
The main goal of the Fair Housing law is to ensure that individuals with disabilities are treated the same as other individuals when it comes to securing housing. To meet that goal, the law puts into place several protections for tenants and homeowners.
Under the law, a housing provider must not:
- Refuse to rent or sell to a qualified tenant or owner because of a disability
- Impose a different set of criteria on a person with disabilities as a condition of rent
- Discriminate against a person because of a disability in the financing process
- Inquire about the nature of a person’s disability, except as it relates to a request for an accessible unit
- Request that an applicant for a lease or mortgage undergo a medical evaluation
A housing provider, under the law, must:
- Make reasonable accommodations for an individual with disabilities
- Suspend rules, policies or practices that impede a person with disabilities to live in a dwelling
- Allow individuals to make reasonable physical modifications, at his or her expense, to a structure that enhance their ability to live in a dwelling
- Ensure that the new construction of units, entrances and exits, and common areas are fully accessible for individuals with disabilities
- Inform individuals with disabilities that are seeking housing of their rights
What responsibilities must a landlord adhere to?
The Fair Housing Act also outlines activities that landlords should, and should not, engage in when renting a unit to a tenant with disabilities.
Under the Fair Housing law, a landlord must not:
- Ask questions about a person’s abilities or disabilities
- Require that a tenant be capable of living without a live-in aid, or other assistance
- Discuss a tenant’s disability with a third party
- Tell a potential tenant that he or she can’t live in a dwelling because it lacks accessible features
- Tell a tenant a wheelchair is not allowed because it causes aesthetic issues
- Assign tenants with disabilities to specific parts of a building, or steer them to certain properties
A landlord must:
- Suspend no-pet policies for guide dogs
- Allow live-in aides on the premises
- Allow tenants to make reasonable physical modifications to a unit
- Tell tenants about vacancies in the building that may be more suited for their needs
- Charge the same rents to people with disabilities as they do to everyone else
Public housing commissions – which are elected bodies that oversee housing programs and facilities at the local level – are responsible for the management, maintenance and upkeep of all HUD-backed facilities that are owned by a local housing authority.
If a tenant lives in project-based housing, the local housing authority is the landlord, and any disputes under the best of circumstances can be handled by the authority. If a person receives a housing voucher, all of his or her complaints should be taken directly to the landlord of the property.
HUD also has a provision for reporting abuses. It’s hotline program can be contacted by phone at 1-800-347-3735, or by email at [email protected].
HUD handles the following types of complaints with local authorities and landlords:
- Housing discrimination
- Unkept units
- Deceptive contractors
If HUD finds that a landlord is violating the department’s guidelines, or is providing substandard housing, he or she may lose HUD voucher backing.
Housing commissions are highly motivated to make sure tenants are satisfied with their surroundings, especially if upkeep by the authority is an issue. If facilities are not properly maintained, a housing commission could lose its funding to administer housing programs.
When efforts to resolve disputes with landlords one-on-one or by filing a HUD complaint fail, the tenant’s recourse is to take the dispute to court by filing a land-lord-tenant suit.
For more information on housing and rental assistance
Government assistance – also known as public assistance – is aid, service or supports that are provided to an individual by a government agency based on established criteria – income, disability, dependency or need, for example. Government resources come in the form of cash, food, services, shelter, technology, supports, and more.
- Cash Assistance: SSI, SSDI and TANF
- Child Care Assistance
- Education Assistance
- Employment Assistance
- Energy Assistance: LIHEAP, WAP and Others
- Health Care: Medicare
- Health Insurance: CHIP, Medicaid, and more
- Housing and Rental Assistance
- Nutrition Assistance: SNAP, WIC and more
- Safety and Protection