How to Navigate HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program

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The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is a federally funded rental assistance program that helps low income families by paying a portion of the family’s rental fee. The tenant is only required to pay a set amount every month to the landlord, typically that amount is about 30% of their household income.  The rent, however, is usually substantially higher than 30% of the tenant’s income. The voucher then pays the rest of the rent amount to the landlord directly. For example, if a unit rents for $800 a month and the tenant’s rent was capped at $400 per month, the voucher would pay the landlord the remaining balance of $400 each month. 

Housing Choice Vouchers are obtained  from a local Public Housing Authority (PHA). A tenant must locate a rental unit within the same geographic area as the Public Housing Authority where the voucher was obtained. Each voucher is assigned to a single household and is not attached to a specific property. This means that the tenant is welcome to find a rental that best suits their needs and is welcome to move to another property if they so desire once their lease has expired. When they move the HCV goes with them so that they can use it for another rental unit as long as they still qualify for the voucher. HCV participant qualifications are reevaluated once a year to ensure that each participant still qualifies.

In order to qualify for a Housing Choice Voucher one must first meet the eligibility criteria. First, the tenant must be low income. That is, they must not make more than what HUD considers to be Low Income. HUD determines income limits for every county and every state, and updates the information annually on their HUD Portal.  Before applying for a voucher it is advised that the household income is checked against the income limits before starting down the lengthy application path.

Although applicants must be low income, they do not all have to be senior citizens. Any household that has a head of household over the age of 19 may apply for the program. As mentioned earlier, properties differ greatly and are not specifically built for seniors. In fact, some may not be appropriately suited for the needs of an aging adult so it is important to evaluate a rental’s practicality prior to signing a lease.

Once a household qualifies for a voucher, that voucher can be used at any rental property that accepts housing vouchers. Although the HCV program is an important lifeline for many low income households, an HCV is difficult to obtain. The biggest issue in getting a voucher is that the waiting lists have many more participants and applicants than funding allows. The waiting list of qualified participants far outweighs the number of vouchers that are available. Each area’s PHA has to maintain a waiting list and heavily populated areas tend to have exceedingly long waiting  lists. Once a list gets too long in an area, that area shuts down the taking of new applications.

Before a tenant can apply they must first go through the eligibility interview from the PHA. At the interview, the PHA prequalifies the applicant. If the applicant is deemed eligible, they are provided with a list of required documents to gather in order for that eligibility to be verified. The interview is referred to as “enrollment”, although at that point the applicant is not actually enrolled in anything other than the interview appointment. When an area’s PHA becomes saturated with voucher applicants enrollment is closed until the PHA determines that the waiting list is low enough to reopen it. There are many areas in the United States that have closed enrollments, those areas tend to be highly populated where the demand is the greatest. At Senioridy, we try to keep a list of areas that tend to have open enrollment.

While it is not always easy to find an area with open enrollment, sometimes it is equally difficult to find landlords that want to accept HCV tenants. One thing to note is that most state laws prohibit any discrimination based on source of income. Landlords also cannot charge a higher amount to an HCV tenant than they do other tenants nor can they toughen their screening to try to disqualify a tenant because they want to use a voucher to pay part of the rent.

Landlords do, however, have to be accepted by HUD, as do the properties that they rent. Properties must be decent, safe, and sanitary and meet HUD’s Housing Quality Standards. Even though features for each rental differ from one property to the next, HUD requires that the property have flushable toilets, fixed-location bathtubs or showers, hot and cold running water, a window in every bedroom, a good roof and that it be free of serious defects. Because these standards do often represent more money and hassle than some landlords want to undertake, many do not participate in the HCV program.

Although HUD does make payments for the tenant, and the tenant is protected by the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else, there is no special protection from the requirements that a landlord will impose. In almost all cases a landlord is going to also require that you apply, even though you have a voucher. It is up to the  landlord to ensure that the tenant will make their monthly rent and utility payments, that they will not be a harm or nuisance to other tenants and will not cause damage to the property.

There are also other financial consideration to take when selecting a property. In addition to rent, when a tenant first signs a lease a security deposit is likely to be required. The voucher will not cover this. A tenant will be responsible for coming up with their portion of the first month’s rent, sometimes they will be required to also come up with their portion of the last month’s rent, and almost all leases will require a security deposit. Keep in mind also that landlords are not required to accept pets. However, if they do accept pets, many will charge a pet fee in addition to the security fee.

During the rental property searching process it is important to keep in mind everything that we have discussed thus far so that a selected property not only meets the physical needs of the senior, but also does not exceed their financial limitations. Below is a list of the items to keep in mind when selecting the best property for a senior household:

  • Make certain you qualify. Take a look at the 5 Sure Steps to Qualify for Low income Senior Housing in order to understand everything the interviewer will look for.
  • Select an area where adequate housing is available and enrollment is open.
  • Once the interview has occurred make sure to submit all required information as soon as possible so that the application and qualification process can proceed.
  • Once a voucher has been awarded make sure to select a property that will meet the specific needs and unique features required by all tenants
  • Be certain to check with the landlord prior to signing a lease to know what deposits and prepayments will be required prior to moving in.
  • Become familiar with the rental terms including property care, maintenance procedures, and how utilities are handled.
  • Know how the landlord expects you to end the lease should you want to.

Although the Housing Choice Voucher meets the needs of the millions of recipients that are on the program, it is a long-term application process and can take years to obtain. It is important for each applicant to evaluate their current qualifications in order to take any steps necessary to improve the likelihood of being awarded a Housing Choice Voucher in the future. Advanced planning and preparation will definitely make the HCV program easier for those that are interested. For those low income seniors that are interested in the HCV program but that have an immediate need should try to look at participation in other low income senior programs while they wait for the application to be processed.

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