Your Local PHA: The Realities

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for funding and managing hundreds of housing-related programs, but very few of the people who use these programs ever deal directly with HUD. That’s because most programs are administered at ground level by a network of Public Housing Authorities (PHAs). There are 3,300 of these agencies spread across the United States, and if you’re interested in almost any government-funded or managed housing program, you’ll probably be dealing with your friendly neighborhood PHA. These offices serve more than a million households, primarily low-income families, the elderly, and disabled people. Not all Authorities handle all programs, so if you are interested in a specific program or service, you’ll need to check with your local office. It’s always good to ask about other available assistance, though, because even if your local PHA does not offer the program or service you want, the staff are familiar with a range of options and may be able to point you toward a viable alternative.

Most of a PHA’s service comes from two programs: public housing and housing choice vouchers. Public housing provides government owned or contracted homes that low-income residents can rent at significantly discounted prices, sometimes even free. Vouchers allow households to rent privately owned homes with the government paying a portion of the cost. Some vouchers may even be used for mortgage payments!

Let’s look at these programs more closely.

Public Housing

Public housing has a bad reputation, and many people associate it with dingy, run-down buildings and high crime rates. That reputation is not completely unjustified. There have been high profile failures that have gotten a great deal of attention. That’s not the whole story, though. There are thousands of projects across the country that quietly provide families with clean, secure homes at a lower cost than they could get anywhere else. You won’t see them on the news because good news isn’t news, but they are there! For example, a recent survey of New York State residents who moved into public housing indicated that 75% were more satisfied with their new homes.┬áPublic housing is not all high-rise apartment blocks, either: many units are in low-rise apartments or even stand-alone dwellings.

Public housing in any given area is under the management of the local PHA, which handles maintenance and establishes eligibility criteria.

Pros and Cons

The main advantage of public housing is simply the low rent. For most tenants, rent is capped at 30% of income, which is the level accepted as “affordable.” For households struggling to find housing that won’t break their budgets, that alone is a compelling reason to consider this option. Public housing can give a family an opportunity to pay down debt, put aside cash for a down payment on a place of their own, or achieve many other financial goals. The disadvantages vary from location to location. In some cities, the available units are mismanaged or even dilapidated or are located in high-crime neighborhoods. In other areas, recipients may qualify only to realize there are no available units.

One persistent issue is that there aren’t enough units to meet demand. According to a survey by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, in 88 percent of communities with a public housing agency, there are only 500 or fewer available rental units.┬áThat can be a significant barrier. Even if public housing is the best available option, it doesn’t help you if there’s none available. It’s always worth asking, though, especially if you belong to a group that may receive priority consideration, such as families with children, the elderly or disabled, or veterans.

Housing Choice Vouchers

Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers, provide government assistance to households renting private properties, rather than in Public Housing projects. Once a household receives a voucher, they have to find a suitable rental unit with an owner who is willing to accept vouchers. The unit must meet standards defined by the local PHA. The tenant closes a deal with the owner, and the government pays a portion of the rent. Again, the tenant’s portion of the rent payment is usually capped at 30% of the household’s income with the government paying the balance. In some cases, vouchers can be used for mortgage payments, though most vouchers support renters.

Vouchers also cut costs, with the bonus of allowing recipients to live in any neighborhood where they can find appropriate and available units. The disadvantages are also much the same: There are far more applicants than there are available vouchers, and waiting lists in some jurisdictions are extensive. Many PHAs stop accepting applicants when the waiting list reaches ten years. It can also be difficult to find a rental unit that meets standards and has an owner who is willing to accept vouchers. People who receive vouchers must use them within four months to keep them, and in areas with limited available rental housing, many voucher recipients are unable to find appropriate units within that time.

Other Programs

Most PHAs devote the majority of their time and resources to Public Housing and Housing Choice Vouchers. These programs have the most funding and can accommodate the largest numbers of participants, so they generate the largest numbers of inquiries and get the most attention. Many handle other programs as well, and the staff will be familiar with any assistance that is available in their area. If you have a housing problem, if you can’t find a home that you can afford, if you are homeless or facing possible homelessness, it is always worth visiting your local authority and discussing your problems. They may have options that you didn’t know existed.


The PHA uses HUD guidelines to determine eligibility for program participation: Gross annual income, U.S citizenship or immigration status, and whether the applicants are elderly, disabled, or qualifies as a family under HUD rules. Although the limits vary by county or metropolitan location, limits typically apply to family size and income. Government-funded programs cannot use race, gender, ethnicity or any similar factor as a criterion for approval, with one exception: there are some programs specifically serving Native Americans. Eligibility standards may vary among different PHAs. Some groups usually receive priority attention:

Homeless families
Age 62 or older
Veteran/widow of veteran of US armed services
Working more than 42 hours/week
Currently living in a shelter
Family separated due to housing issues
Paying over 50% of income for rent or mortgage
Displaced families
If you belong to one or more of these categories, you should certainly visit your local authority to see if you may be eligible for assistance. If you are not in one of these groups, go anyway. It’s always worth a try.

The Application Process

Applications for most programs will require basic data about everyone in the household, including their date of birth, income, and relation to the person applying for assistance. You will also need to provide an address and telephone contact information, special circumstances or needs that might affect eligibility, and information regarding previous living arrangements and landlords along with an estimate of income for the next 12 months and employment and bank information. The PHA sometimes also conducts home visits to families or individuals applying for assistance. Be prepared to provide documents verifying your employment and income. Always be honest. PHA staff review and check application data, and if you are caught cheating you will lose any benefits you have and may face legal liabilities.

Some Harsh Realities

Most PHAs are staffed by knowledgeable, dedicated people who will do their best to help those who need it. That doesn’t mean help is always available, though, and you should not expect magic. Many programs have seen cuts in budgets that were already inadequate, and the supply of subsidized housing often does not meet demand. The PHA can’t provide a space in public housing or a voucher if there are none available and there’s a mile-long waiting list. The staff are constrained by masses of regulations and requirements at multiple levels, and there will be red tape, forms, required documents, and all kinds of bureaucratic requirements with no assurance that help is available. Don’t blame the PHA or the people who work there for that. They don’t make the rules, but they have to follow them. Some staff even end up discouraged and unmotivated from years of trying to do too much with too little.

None of these realities should keep you from using the help that your local PHA can offer. Just keep your expectations reasonable, and be prepared to meet many requirements and face the possibility of considerable waiting times. That’s not an ideal situation, but it is the reality. The help that your local PHA can provide is real and substantial, though, and it’s worth working your way through the paperwork and the waiting time if the outcome is a safe, affordable home for your family.

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