How to Find Affordable Rentals for Low Income Renters

A colorful affordable housing complex under a clear sky

Finding affordable rental housing when you're on a low income is possible—it just requires knowing your options and finding the best fit. There are government programs available to help, and more than 5 million American households use some form of them to afford housing, so you're not alone. Read on to learn about how to find affordable housing.

Who Qualifies for Affordable Housing Programs?

Rental assistance programs are typically offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and aimed at low-income individuals and families, people who are elderly, and people with disabilities. For all HUD-backed rental assistance programs, you'll need to be a U.S. citizen or non-citizen with eligible immigration status.

Program eligibility is generally based on the number of people in your household and your annual gross income, which is how much money you earn from all sources in one year before taxes are taken out. There are also income limits based on where you live.

The most straightforward way to see if you qualify for rental assistance is to contact your local Public Housing Authority (PHA). You can also look up income limits on HUD's website. Income limits aren't the same in every area, though, so this means you might be eligible at one Housing Agency (HA) but not at another—good news if you didn't qualify at the first HA you applied to. In general, the income limits range from 50% to 80% of the median income for your city or county.

Each rental assistance program works a little differently (more on this below), but there is one common requirement: To be eligible for any type of rental assistance, you'll need to provide proof of income. Some documents that show your income include bank statements, pay stubs, W-2s and tax returns. If you get child support or public assistance benefits, you might need to provide additional documents. More, for some types of housing programs, you might have to meet additional requirements set by the landlord or property owners if it's privately owned.

If you're applying for rental assistance through a program that focuses on specific segments of the population, such as veterans, there could be additional requirements. For example, to be eligible for veteran housing programs, you'll need to meet income requirements and also show proof of military service (typically with a U.S. Department of Veterans ID card). You may also need to live in one of the target communities depending on the program.

If your income changes while you're applying for any of the programs, don't panic: You likely still have options. If your income changes and it's still under the income limit for the number of people in your household, you can probably move forward without any issues. If your income change puts you over the income limit for the number of people in your household, you should reach out to your local PHA to figure out next steps.

Types of Affordable Housing Programs

There are three main types of affordable housing programs: Private subsidized housing, public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers.

  • Private subsidized housing is private property where landlords are paid by the government to offer apartments at lower rents.
  • Public housing (formerly known as Section 8) is made up of government-managed houses and apartments offered at affordable rates.
  • Housing Choice Vouchers are like coupons that allow you to find your own place and use the voucher to pay for all or part of your rent.

With public housing, you don't have to find your own housing because it's already provided by the local PHA. To apply for public housing, you'll need to contact a public housing agency in your state.

For Housing Choice Vouchers and private subsidized housing, you're responsible for finding your own place to live, which you can do by searching for eligible apartments. From there you'll need to apply directly at the building's leasing office, usually in person or through their website. The leasing office or landlord can provide an application and give you information about vacancies.

All of these programs are in high demand, so start the application process as early as possible. Additionally, there are typically waiting lists for Housing Choice Vouchers and public housing, with preference given to the elderly and people with disabilities.

Specialized Housing Programs

In addition to the three primary types of affordable housing programs, there are specialized programs that focus on serving specific segments of the population, such as veterans, senior citizens and people who live in rural areas.

For veterans there are two main programs: HUD-VASH and the Shallow Subsidy initiative. HUD-VASH is designed to help homeless veterans. It combines housing vouchers with case management services to help veterans get treatment for mental, physical or substance abuse issues that impact their quality of life and ability to find stable housing. The Shallow Subsidy program is a newer program offered in select cities and states that provides a fixed rental subsidy to low-income veterans for up to two years.

People who are elderly might also qualify for additional rental support programs. If you fall into this category, the best way to learn about housing options available in your community and to find out what you're eligible for is to contact a local Area Agency on Aging.

Because not everyone lives near a major city or large town, there are programs that serve rural residents specifically. If you live in a rural area, you could be eligible for Rural Rental Assistance programs offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To understand more about what's available in your area, reach out to your local Rural Development (RD) office: They specialize in the local community and can help you identify which properties qualify for Rural Rental Assistance.

How to Get Additional Help Paying Rent

If you find yourself in need of emergency rent assistance, the first thing you should do is reach out to your landlord or property manager for help. Property owners are often motivated to keep a unit filled, so being transparent about your situation could buy you some time.

Sometimes local nonprofits and other community programs offer short-term rent assistance too. For example, many Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA locations offer one-time rent assistance. Additionally, some Local Housing Authority agencies keep lists of local short-term rental assistance resources. The requirements vary for these different programs and organizations, but they usually aren't as strict as government programs.

Low-income rental assistance makes it possible for millions of people to live in affordable, stable housing. With the right resources and a bit of legwork, you can find the best home for your unique living situation no matter how your financial picture looks.