In the U.S., there’s no single, central website you can visit to apply for help finding a home you can afford. Everything happens at a local level, and the kinds of help available in each area are different. In some areas, waiting lists are so long you may feel there’s no point in trying. But you have to start somewhere, and this guide will give you some useful advice about how to begin your search.
Step One: Get some basic information ready; you’ll need it as soon as you start looking. How many people are in your household? How much do you earn in a year, before taxes, for all adults in the household combined? (Use this calculator to convert your hourly wages to a yearly income.)
Wondering what the income limits are for getting help? They’re different for each area, and for each type of home. They depend on how much people in that area tend to earn and how much housing in that area tends to cost. The government calculates these numbers every year. The income limits also depend on the number of people in your household. As you can see, there’s no one answer that applies to everyone. And figuring out what exactly counts as income can also get confusing–the official details are here, but they’re pretty dense. That’s why your best bet is to get clear about your own basic information and then ask your housing authority for the details that apply to you.
Step Two: Find the housing authority that serves your area.
What’s a housing authority? It’s the organization that’s officially in charge of helping people find affordable homes in a given area: depending on location, that can include public housing, Section 8 housing, and privately built housing where some or all of the homes are set aside for people with certain income ranges. There may be a housing authority for your specific city or there may be one that covers a larger region.
Use this government directory to find your nearest housing authority.
Step Three: Call the housing authority and tell them you need help finding a home you can afford.
Possible questions to ask:
-Are there public housing units or Section 8 vouchers available in my area? Are any of the waiting lists open?
-What about other kinds of homes set aside for people with lower incomes?
-Are there any new buildings currently in development that I can apply for?
-Is there somewhere I get help in person to understand my options?
-Is there a website where I can get information and apply online?
If you’re a senior, or if someone in your household has a disability, your application may get special priority; be sure to ask about this when you apply. Some kinds of housing may also be set aside for people with specific jobs (for example, city employees) or special circumstances (for example formerly homeless families or victims of domestic violence).
Once you’ve learned about your options through your local housing authority, you’ll need to complete an application (possibly several applications). Again, the details will vary for each area, but here are some general tips to keep in mind:
-Stay organized; there will be lots of phone numbers, deadlines, and paperwork to keep track of. If you start the process organized it will save you some headaches down the line.
-Prepare for a long wait: although you may get lucky depending on your location and circumstances, usually the process takes months or even years.
-Get on as many waiting lists as you can, covering as many different types of housing as you’re eligible for.
-If your address changes after you apply for housing, be sure to update the office managing your application. Many people lose their place on waiting lists because the housing authority can’t reach them when their spot comes up.
These are the most general steps to get you started. The details will depend on where you live and how the housing authority in your area manages the process. Some housing authorities have great websites with lots of information specific to that area. Others are more helpful if you call or show up in person.
Other ways to get help:
If you’re having trouble reaching a helpful human at your local housing authority, try calling a social service organization in your area; many charities and other nonprofits are set up to give you advice about housing– for example, local offices of the Urban League and Catholic Charities and hundreds of other groups all over the country offer this kind of help for free. The government’s department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has put together a directory of organizations that are approved to give people guidance in finding homes they can afford. Look for one in your area by searching here (hint: if nothing comes up for your exact town or zip code, try searching by state to get more options).
If your town has a local non-emergency info hotline, like 311, call this number and ask where to go for housing help. They will know where to direct you. If you live in a smaller town or city, call the town government directly or ask in person at the town hall.
There are also many well-run, helpful nonprofit housing development organizations all over the country with excellent websites. Try searching Google for “affordable housing” and the name of your county or region, for example “Affordable housing in the East Bay.”
Here are some national websites that can help you in your search:
- Affordable Housing Online is a non-government site with many helpful features:
- A detailed guide to eligibility for affordable housing
- Listings for low-cost homes all over the country; you’ll still need to figure out what sort of specific application and income each place requires, but these listings can get you started.
- The government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development has tried to put together some helpful links for renters seeking help, but they aren’t in the business of making fancy websites, so you’ll have to dig for what you need. Here’s one place to start.