What are Housing Assistance Programs?

Miranda Fine

Housing assistance programs are programs run by federal and state governments or non-profit agencies that assist low-income citizens with housing issues. Most housing assistance programs are run by the federal government and administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD also provides block grants to states to develop their own housing assistance programs, which are administered through the state, municipal governments, or non-profit agencies.

Housing assistant programs may help low-income citizens with housing issues.
Housing assistant programs may help low-income citizens with housing issues.

There are many different housing assistance programs. Most of these programs either provide subsidies to citizens who would otherwise have incomes too low to pay for housing on their own, or maintain rental units for low-income, disabled or elderly citizens. Some offer incentives to landlords or builders to build more affordable units. There are also refinancing programs for financially troubled homeowners. There is a great demand for housing assistance, and there are often long waiting lists for any type of housing assistance program.

Some public housing is being replaced by mixed income townhouse-style housing.
Some public housing is being replaced by mixed income townhouse-style housing.

In the past, most housing assistance programs were focused on building housing units that were maintained by city housing authorities. These programs were criticized for concentrating poverty in individual neighborhoods and increasing racial segregation within cities. The current trend is moving toward providing subsidies through housing vouchers that can be used to rent housing through the private market.

The two best known types of housing assistance programs are Section 8 vouchers and public housing. With a Section 8 voucher, also called a “housing choice voucher”, voucher holders look for rental housing in the private market. The program has certain standards for acceptable units and sends an inspector to make sure a desired unit meets program criteria. A voucher holder pays 30% of their monthly income in rent, and the voucher makes up the difference and covers the rental deposit.

To qualify for a voucher, family income cannot exceed 50% of the median income, as determined by the last census, of the area where the family lives. Local governments are allotted a finite number of housing vouchers each year, and there is often an extremely long waiting list for them.

Public housing refers to rental units that are owned and maintained by a local housing authority and designated for low-income families, the elderly or the disabled. Many public housing developments across the nation are in various states of disrepair. A federal program called Hope VI allotted money to rebuild and restructure public housing developments. As a result, many older public housing apartment blocks are being razed and replaced, although usually with fewer units, with mixed income townhouse style housing. Despite problems associated with living in a public housing development, long waiting lists are common.

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