What There is and How to Access It

Because the housing market in Massachusetts is out of control, rents and home sale prices have skyrocketed and are now not affordable even to many moderate-income families and individuals. So it is no wonder that it is so difficult for low-income families and individuals to find affordable and decent housing in almost any neighborhood. But, there are subsidies that exist to make proper housing less of a burden on low-income peoples’ lives.

With subsidized housing, tenants only pay 25-40% of their income to rent. This way low-income tenants can afford to pay their other necessary expenses. Unfortunately, the amount of people who need subsidized housing greatly outnumbers the amount of subsidized apartments that exist, so the waiting lists can be very long. Despite this, we advise people to get on as many lists as possible. Advocates in various community and tenant organizations can help you fill out the applications for these subsidies and get on the lists. (Refer to the Tenants’ Resource List in the back of this manual.)

This chapter will give you a better idea of the different forms of housing (subsidized and unsubsidized) that exist in Massachusetts and how to access them. With this, we hope to better equip you with the knowledge you’d need to conduct a thorough housing search.

Regular Market Housing makes up the majority of the housing in our area. It is privately owned and can be influenced by the changes in the market, depending on the will of the individual owners. Because Massachusetts no longer has Rent Control, owners of market apartments can really charge as much as they want, as long as they think someone will rent it from them. You may be able to find a market apartment that is “under market” rent price and affordable to you if you really shop around. Otherwise, you can try to negotiate with the owner to lower the price.

There are many ways to find a market apartment:

  1. Look in local and city newspapers, and on housing search web-sites, and spread the word to friends and co-workers that you are looking for an apartment.
  2. Choose the areas in which you would like to live and go to the town centers to look for advertisements for available apartments (like flyers on community bulletin boards and store windows).
  3. Make up your own flyer that says what you are looking for (either your own apartment or a shared apartment, and include the amount of bedrooms, how much you can pay for rent, and whatever else you’d want to include), and leave a phone number where people can reach you. Post it in the town centers of the neighborhoods you would like to live.

Public Housing is owned and rented out by the government. Each city and town in Massachusetts has its own local Housing Authority that operates and manages its public housing. To apply for public housing, you will need to decide which towns and cities you are willing to live in (like Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Chelsea, etc.), and then apply in person at each of their Housing Authorities. City Life has a list of all the different housing authorities in Massachusetts. You can either come and pick up a copy of this list from us or you can call information (411) to get the numbers of the Housing Authorities in the areas where you are willing to live. You should call the Housing Authority before you go over to apply, to find out if they have any special instructions for applying. Some authorities require you to attend a (very helpful) orientation before you can apply, and some request that people who speak different languages come at specific times to be helped by representatives who speak their language.

The first part of the application process will be simply to get onto one of two waiting lists: the standard list or the priority list. The priority list is for people who critically need housing and are willing to live anywhere within that specific city or town. You determine whether or not you need to be on the priority list. But don’t underestimate your need for affordable housing. The standard waiting list can be years long, so if you truly believe that your situation should be a priority, get on that list.

If you request to be on the priority list, you will have to fill out a form that explains how your current situation qualifies you as a priority (that you are “doubled up” in someone else’s apartment or you cannot afford to pay your current rent or are being evicted, etc.) Fill out the form and get it back to the Housing Authority as soon as possible. You will then be on the list.

When your name comes to the top of the list, you will be sent a more thorough application and given a date to come in for an interview. The application will ask for several different documents to bring to your interview. After this process, if they deem you qualified, you will then be placed in your own apartment.

If you need help filling out any of the forms, you can call City Life or another tenants’ advocacy organization to assist you.

The Section 8 Program gives vouchers to families and individuals to help them afford market housing. This is how it works: The government sets an average rent prices for any given area, and then (considering that price) they deduct 30% of your income to determine the amount of money they will give you as a voucher. You will have to find an apartment that is considerably close to the average price the government sets for that area, because they will only let you pay a maximum of 40% of your income for rent. Once you find the apartment (and it passes a State Sanitary Code inspection), you will pay your landlord 30-40% of your income each month for rent and the government will pay your landlord the rest. Unfortunately, if your landlord increases the rent while you are living there, you will have to pay the increase; your voucher amount doesn’t change. (Don’t forget, though, that you have the option to fight the rent increase. Refer to chapter 7, Eviction and Rent Increase)

The Section 8 Program has its goods and its not-so-goods. A good part is that once you get your voucher, you can use it for an apartment anywhere in the state or the country (depending on whether your voucher is from the State Section 8 Program or the Federal Section 8 Program). A not-so-good part is that your apartment is privately owned and is able to be influenced by the changes in the market. In other words, your rent can go up as often as your landlord wants it to; as opposed to an apartment in public housing that maintains a permanently affordable rent. Fortunately, apartments that are owned by non-profit organizations, like Neighborhood Development Corporations (that maintain permanently affordable rents, while also keeping their buildings safe and in good condition) accept Section 8 vouchers. You can call the various NDCs and CDCs (Community Development Corporations) in Massachusetts to find out if they have any apartments available in any of the buildings they own.

Once you have your voucher and you have found the apartment you would like to live in, the landlord cannot legally deny you the apartment just because you are a Section 8 tenant. Discrimination is illegal! With a Section 8 tenant, the landlord will be getting no less rent than he is asking, so there is no reason to discriminate.

Section 8 vouchers are not easy to get, so it is important to get on as many lists as possible. You apply for Section 8 in a similar way as you would for Public Housing. The Housing Authorities of the different towns and cities control the application process and give out the vouchers from the Federal Section 8 Program and for the State Section 8 Program (called the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program).

In some towns and cities, there are other organizations that also give out Section 8 vouchers, in addition to the housing authorities. So when you call the housing authorities in the various towns and cities, you should also ask them if there is an other place in that area where you can apply for Section 8. Otherwise, you can pick up a list from City Life that lists all the housing authorities and organizations that have Section 8 vouchers in Massachusetts.

To apply, you must first call all the housing authorities (and organizations that have Section 8 programs) in as many cities and towns as you can, to find out if their Section 8 lists are “open” – if they are taking any more names. For some lists that are closed, they will only take names for emergency cases, like if you were made homeless* because of a fire or a flood, if your building was condemned, or if you are trying to escape an abusive relationship, etc. (You will need some sort of documentation for these emergency cases.)

*The term “homeless” refers to a wide range of cases. It generally implies a family or individual who is not living in their own home. This family or individual can be staying on the street, in a shelter, in the home of another family or friend (“doubled-up”), etc.

The first part of the application process will be simply to get your name onto one of the waiting lists. To do this, they will give you a short application to fill out. Once you return it, you will be on the list. When your name comes to the top of the list, you will be sent a more thorough application and given a date to come in for an interview. The application will ask for several different documents to bring to your interview. After this process, if they deem you qualified, you should receive your voucher within a month.

You will have 120 days from the day you receive the voucher to find the apartment, and move into it. But before you move in, you will need to order an inspection. If your 120 days are over before you find a place, you can try to get an extension from the housing authority or organization, but they are sometimes quite hard to come by. You must request an extension before the 120 days expires.

If you feel that you have been denied an apartment by a landlord because he “doesn’t want to take Section 8”, that is discrimination and it is illegal! Call the housing authority or organization that gave you your voucher, as well as the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) at (617) 727-3990, immediately. Filing a claim with both groups will stop the (120-day) clock for you. While they are investigating the claim, your clock will stop, giving you more time to find an apartment. Later, you can choose to go ahead with the case or if, in your additional time, you have found an apartment, you can drop the case.

If you need help filling out any of the forms, you can call City Life or another tenants’ advocacy organization to assist you.

Privately Owned, Subsidized Apartment Buildings are buildings that were built with government money and are privately owned. When they were built, there was an agreement that some or all of the apartments in that building would have to remain “affordable” for a certain amount of time.

Each building has its own set of qualification restrictions and its own waiting list. There are a couple of booklets that list all of the Subsidized Apartment Buildings in the various areas of Massachusetts. There is one from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) which lists the buildings that were built with state money, and one from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which lists the buildings that were built with federal money. To get your own lists, you can call MHFA at (617) 854-1000, and HUD at (617) 565-5234. Ask them to send you their most recent subsidized “Housing List.” And then you can call all of the buildings (or the companies that own the buildings) in the areas you are willing to live to find out if they have any vacancies, what you need to qualify, and how to apply. When you call, specify that you are looking for low-income housing.

Again, if you need help filling out any forms, you can call City Life or another tenants’ advocacy organization to assist you.