Affordable Housing Often Hard to Find; Here are Some Ways to Start the Search
By Arthur Ford
One of the most vulnerable groups of people who are directly affected by this trend in the housing market are those with disabilities. Finding an accessible, safe, and affordable place to live is ideal but often difficult to attain. SSI and SSDI benefits are typically not enough income to cover market rent, utilities, and other essential living expenses. Assisted living facilities can range from $2,500-$5,000 monthly, so this disqualifies most individuals from applying. If placed in an affordable unit, the individual would have enough to cover monthly living expenses with a little cash left over for other items such as food and out-of-pocket medical expenses.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines an “affordable dwelling” as one that a household can obtain for 30% or less of its income, with income limits varying from city to city. Therefore, a family or individual will pay no more than 30% of the family’s monthly income toward rent or no more than 40% if the family is also responsible for utilities. Most affordable housing communities are subsidized through various programs financed through HUD. These programs include the Housing Choice Voucher Program(Section8), Project-Based Vouchers, Low Income Tax Credits, Public Housing, and USDA Rural Developments. Each program provides renters the opportunity to obtain a housing unit based on their income or at rates that are below-market rent. The Housing Choice Voucher provides the opportunity to rent a house, an apartment or a townhouse.
In an effort to make sure everyone is aware and has the same opportunity to apply, HUD mandates that most income-based programs maintain a waiting list. The announcement and length of time the waiting list will be open is usually highly publicized via newspaper, broadcasts, and social media in metropolitan areas. Sometimes the waiting list is open for a few days or a few weeks, but in some areas, it may stay open. In less populated areas, the notice may simply be a sign on the door or an announcement on the local website. After the waiting list closes, applicants are usually ranked by application date and time or sent off to a third party to be selected and ranked by a lottery system, if there are more applicants than available spaces on the waiting list.
Once an applicant’s name is reached on the waiting list, they are invited to complete the application process, submit required documents, and are screened for eligibility. Eligibility requirements should be mapped out in an apartment complex’s management company tenant selection plan or the Public Housing Authority’s Administrative Plan, which should be posted for public viewing. Most screenings consist of background checks, rental history, and credit history. HUD prohibits admission to individuals registered as lifetime sex offenders or convicted for the manufacture or production of methamphetamine. However, simply having a criminal history is not a disqualifier. If admission is denied, the applicant has a right to appeal the decision. All requests for appeals should be made in writing to the program or community that issued the denial within 10-14 days.
Once admitted, the family is assigned a housing unit based on the number of household members. The head of household/spouse is offered a bedroom, then two individuals per bedroom for the remaining members, regardless of age. (The actual term used is “two heartbeats per bedroom.”) For example, a single individual would only qualify for a one-bedroom unit, whereas an adult with three children would be offered at least a three-bedroom unit in accordance with HUD’s occupancy standards. There are exceptions to these rules for individuals with disabilities who require assistance for independent living. An additional bedroom is provided for a “live-in aide.” The live-in aide is selected by the head of household but must be screened as an applicant. However, the aide’s income is not counted towards the rent.
There are various types of HUD-subsidized communities based on an individual’s need. The most popular are the multi-family developments that usually have units ranging from one to six bedrooms. Traditional public housing and income-based apartment complexes fall under the category of multi-family. High-rises are usually reserved for the near-elderly, elderly, and individuals with disabilities. HUD defines elderly as an individual who is 62 years or older. If the tower is reserved for elderly/disabled tenants, the age requirement is waived once the individual is deemed disabled. If selected for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, participants have a broad choice of a house, duplex, townhouse, or apartment as long as the place is able to pass HUD’s Housing Quality Standard inspection. Recipients of the voucher have about 60 days from the time of issuance to locate a place that will pass the inspection or the voucher will expire. TNHousingsearch.org is a great tool for renters and landlords to find and list available units that participate in the voucher program.
So, what do we do about those long waiting lists? The short-term answer is to be patient and to keep your information updated once placed on a waiting list.
The long-term answer is to engage landlords and developers and educate them on the benefits of affordable housing and participating in the programs. One of the benefits to landlords is the guarantee that the subsidy will be received each month via direct deposit. There are also various tax credits that developers can use to rehab distressed apartment communities, which, in turn, could lower the mortgage of the development. This savings can be passed on to the tenants by offering rent below market value or placing the entire complex under a project-based voucher program. There are various opinions on how to tackle affordable housing. However, the one thing we can all agree on is the need, and the need to do something about it.
My thanks to Arthur for explaining what has always seemed to me a very complex and difficult issue. And my thanks to Carrie Guiden, now director of ECF CHOICES for Amerigroup, for introducing me to Arthur. Arthur has been gracious enough to allow me to share his email address in case anyone has questions about funding programs for affordable housing. He can be reached at Arthur.Ford@Anthem.com. As always, you can reach out to me at email@example.com as well, if you have questions.
Arthur Ford is the Tennessee housing outreach specialist for Amerigroup. Amerigroup supports individuals who are enrolled in TennCare’s Employment and Community First CHOICES and CHOICES programs. Arthur’s career in affordable housing started about eight years ago, working for the Housing Choice Voucher Program with the Memphis Housing Authority. He went on to manage both conventional and income-based apartment communities, gaining more experience with HUD’s project-based voucher and Tax Credit programs. In 2015 Arthur joined Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville as a property manager, managing elderly/disabled high-rises, traditional housing projects, and work-force communities before joining Anthem in June 2020. In his current role, he secures affordable housing for individuals who are displaced or transitioning from nursing facilities back into the community. He is also responsible for facilitating trainings and writing polices for Amerigroup’s housing program.
November 3, 2020