Benefits: Public Housing: Q&A
Affordable housing in Massachusetts is an extremely complex topic. The general questions and answers below are meant to guide housing recipients or applicants in asking the right questions, not to provide a hard-and-fast course of action. How housing is funded generally determines who is eligible for it, what they pay, and what income or assets are counted. When in doubt, ask!
NOTE: For general information on how rent is determined in federal public housing, click here. For general information on how rent is determined for federal voucher programs (e.g. Section-8), click here.
Q: Will my rent go up if I go to work?
A: Not necessarily. Depending on the type of housing you are in, and if you have worked in the past year, you may be able to take advantage of a program called the “Earned Income Disregard”, which allows qualifying individuals to keep all of their earnings for the first year of work, without any increase in their rent, and to allow the housing authority to only count half of their earnings as income for the second year.
Q: Will my rent go up if someone else in my household goes to work?
A: If the employed person qualifies for the “Earned Income Disregard”, his/her earnings will not be counted as part of the household income for the first year, and only half of the earnings will be counted for the second year.
Q: When do I need to report changes in my income?
A: Income needs to be reported every year to the housing authority during the annual recertification period, at a minimum. Individual housing authorities can have different policies for reporting income increases at other times of the year, so tenants need to check with their leasing agent/housing authority for specific rules.
While all housing authorities are required to lower your rent if you provide documentation of a drop in income, it is a good rule of thumb to report all changes as soon as you are aware of them, to avoid any underpayments.
Q: How much can I earn before I lose my voucher?
A: This depends on the type of subsidy you have, how many people are in your household, and, to a lesser extent, where you are living. All vouchers allow for some income deductions when calculating rent, generally by deducting a standard amount for everyone, plus other deductions that apply (e.g., medical expenses over a certain amount).
After the housing authority makes these calculations, the rule for Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) subsidies is no more than two times the federal poverty level, or, for an individual, no more than $21,780 total, including earnings and benefits. Eligibility for Housing Choice Vouchers (i.e. Section-8, or HCVs for short), and many other types of affordable and subsidized housing, is based on the Area Median Income (AMI) for the city in which you are receiving or applying for the voucher, and can vary somewhat from city to city. The AMI can be thought of as roughly the average income for a city, and most types of housing are available only to people earning a certain percentage less than this average. Although it might be harder to get a Housing Choice Voucher if you have a relatively high income, Section-8 rules allow households to have incomes of up to 80% of AMI and still keep their voucher. For a list of 2010 AMIs, click here (PDF).
Q: I want my girlfriend/boyfriend to move in with me. How do I do that?
A: The most important thing to do is to talk to your landlord and the housing authority before anyone moves in. If you don’t, you could be violating your lease and could be at risk of losing your housing. If you want to formally add them, they may have to pass a CORI and/or credit check, provide references, copies of identification, and income statements, and be found eligible for a voucher. [Note: Additions to your household will be added onto your voucher — you will be named the “head of household” — they will not get their own. As such, you can also be held responsible for what members of your household do.]
Q: What is the difference between affordable housing and subsidized housing?
A: “Affordable” housing is a general term that covers most kinds of housing that cost less than the average home or apartment in a particular community. Generally the rent is a set rate that doesn’t fluctuate with changes in income. By contrast, rents in subsidized apartments will go up or down with changes in the tenant’s income.
Some affordable apartments also have much stricter income rules, requiring a minimum and/or maximum income to live in the apartment. For subsidized housing in Massachusetts, there is only a maximum income requirement.
Q: What are the different kinds of housing in Massachusetts?
A: Massachusetts is unusual for having many types of affordable housing available. The table below is a simplified summary of the most common types of housing; there are other kinds of housing with differing rules available.
Q: I live in subsidized housing and want to start saving in a PASS Plan – is that OK?
A: Yes. Income that is saved in a PASS Plan is not factored in by the housing authority when calculating a person’s rent.
Q: I have a housing voucher. How much can I keep in the bank (i.e., what are the asset limits)?
A: If you have a Section-8/Housing Choice Voucher or live in federal public housing, there is currently no asset limit. If you have a MRVP, the asset limit for an individual is $15,000 or one-and-a-half times your gross annual income.
Q: I live in public housing. Can I still apply for a voucher?
A: Yes, though you may be a lower priority than other people on the list.
Q: I received a large retroactive payment from Social Security. What do I do now?
A: Income, particularly a large sum, should always be reported to the housing authority or management company that calculates your rent. Although all tenants must report their income and assets annually, different housing authorities may have their own requirements for reporting at other times during the year. It is best to check with your own housing authority for its specific rules.
If you are in state-funded housing, large assets may disqualify you from further assistance; tenants in this situation should contact their local benefits specialist or CWIC to plan how funds may be used or kept, if possible, to avoid this.
The federal regulations governing whether housing authorities can claim one-third of your lump sum payment can be unclear, but generally housing authorities should not be counting a retroactive social security payment as income. See page 3, Exclusions from Annual Income, the third bullet from the end of the section: (view PDF). If you believe your housing authority has incorrectly claimed part of your lump-sum payment as income, it is recommended that you consult with DLC (Disability Law Center) and, if necessary, get legal representation.
In all cases, though, any interest generated from your payment over the course of the year will be counted as income and will be factored into a new rent calculation.