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Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

Where do I apply for public and subsidized housing?

To apply for government-funded housing, you generally have to request an application from each separate housing agency, voucher program, or subsidized development. Unfortunately, there is no one standard application for all public or subsidized housing in Massachusetts.

In general, it is best to start with local housing authorities, since they accept applications for many kinds of programs, including public housing, vouchers, and sometimes for apartments in multifamily developments. Next you should contact the regional nonprofit agency covering your area, and then look into the subsidized developments in the communities you are interested in. You may be able to submit applications to all of these types of housing through HousingWorks with the help of a housing search worker.

After you complete an application, you must return it for processing to the same place where you got it.

Public housing

If you want to apply for public housing, you must apply to the housing authority in the place where you want to live. Some housing authorities cover several communities, and some communities have no housing authority. You can apply in as many towns or cities as you wish. In larger cities, for housing authorities with many different buildings, you may be able to choose only a few of their developments to apply to. You can find a list of housing authorities in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities website.


If you want to apply for rental assistance vouchers, such as Section 8, Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), or an Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), there are three ways that you can apply.

  1. You can submit one application to a centralized Section 8 waiting list that about 80 housing authorities participate in. This list is open indefinitely. To get an application and find out more about this list see  Massachusetts Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Centralized Waiting List.
  2. You can apply to one of the nine regional nonprofit housing agencies that distribute about 17,000 Section 8 vouchers that the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) receives. A list of regional nonprofit agencies is in the Public Housing Authority section of the Directory or see the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts website. You can also get the application from the Rental Applications and Documentation page of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development website.
  3. You can apply directly to local housing authorities that have these vouchers. The housing authorities that have Section 8 voucher programs are underlined in the list of housing authorities in the Public Housing Authority section of the Directory. You may submit applications for vouchers to as many housing authorities as you would like.


As of 2009, the MRVP tenant-based program is still mostly closed, and many Section 8 voucher waiting lists are also closed.

Multifamily developments

If you want to apply to multifamily subsidized developments, you must apply to each development. In some cases, a local housing authority may also have applications for some apartments in multifamily developments in its community.3 You can apply to as many subsidized developments as you want. There is no single list of all the subsidized developments in Massachusetts. Use the MassHousing and HUD lists described in How do I find public and subsidized housing? to locate developments where you want to apply.

Do I have to go in person to get an application?

To get an application, call or write to the housing authority or subsidized landlord and ask them to send you applications for all of the housing programs that they are accepting applications for. Some programs will make their applications available to you by mail, fax, or Internet.4

If you are applying for state public housing or a state voucher (MRVP or AHVP), you can get a standard application from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Community Development website. You will still need to submit this application to each state-funded housing authority where you wish to apply. But you can fill out your personal information once, make several copies, and then sign each one as you turn it in to the housing authority.

In other instances, you may have to pick up the application in person. If you have a disability and cannot pick up the application in person, let the housing authority or owner know. They should make other arrangements for you to accommodate your disability.5

Application procedures must be posted at the main office of the development and made available in writing to all applicants upon request.6 Application procedures vary from place to place. If you have questions, you can ask the housing authority or landlord, or contact a local legal services office.

How do I complete an application for public or subsidized housing?

Fill out the application

Applications for public and subsidized housing are sometimes long and detailed. You can choose to take an application with you and bring it back, but you can also stay at the housing authority or owner's office and complete it there. If you plan on completing it that day, make sure you bring copies of documents you may need to submit with your application. See What documents will I need to turn in when I apply?.

For a Section 8 application, often the time that the waiting list is open is short, so when you pick up or get the application pay attention to when the application is due and be sure to submit it on time.7

For a waiting list that is open only a short time, you may want to make one trip to the housing authority during which you get, fill out and submit the application. Be sure to bring with you copies of all your supporting documents listed in What documents will I need to turn in when I apply?.

If you need help with the application or if you have a question about what something means, ask someone at the place where you are applying. If you apply for state public housing, the local housing authority must help you fill out an application.8 Federal programs are required only to help applicants with disabilities or applicants who do not speak or write English.

Identify your preference or priority status

Housing authorities usually get more applicants for public and subsidized housing than there are apartments available. In order to decide who gets housing first, housing authorities and landlords often have preferences and priorities.9 If you qualify for a preference or priority you will move more quickly up the waiting list. If you do not qualify for any preference, you will have to wait much longer.

When you fill out an application, make sure you apply for all the different preferences that you think you fit. You may also have to file a separate application if you fit into certain preferences or priorities that are part of a housing authority's Emergency Case Plan. To figure out whether you fit into a priority or preference category, see Who Has Priority.

Make sure your information is correct

Do not put anything on an application that is not true. If a housing agency or private landlord discovers that you provided false information on your application, then it can deny your application.10

Make a copy of the application

It is a good idea to make a copy of your application and a note about which supporting documents are included before you submit it. Keep this information so you will know what information you have given the housing authority or landlord. For more information about how to organize your housing search, see How can I keep track of my search for housing?

Submit the application and get a receipt

There are different procedures for submitting applications, depending on where you apply. For state housing programs, applications can be submitted in person or by mail, even if all supporting documentation is not included.11 Some housing authorities, regional nonprofits, or owners accept applications by fax or computer. If you do submit something electronically, be sure to keep a record of that submission. Other housing programs may have different procedures. Refusing to accept applications by mail may constitute discrimination because of age, disability, or race. For information about discrimination and how to protect yourself, visit the Discrimination section of this website.

You should always request a written receipt from the housing authority or landlord stating the date you submitted your application so you will have a record of this.12

What if I have an emergency need for housing?

Often, the fastest way to get into public housing is by applying for and obtaining "emergency status" from the housing authority. If you are granted emergency status, this means that the housing authority agrees that you meet its emergency criteria and you are placed at or near the top of the waiting list.

But because many housing programs do not consider emergencies when taking applications, you may also want to contact your regional Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH) agencies. See the Housing Stabilization section of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) website to find the entity in your area.

State public housing

All state-funded public housing authorities have an Emergency Case Plan, which sets forth the criteria for obtaining emergency status.13 In some cases, the housing authority will have its own Emergency Case Plan, and in other cases it will use the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities's model case plan. You should ask to see the Emergency Case Plan before you submit your emergency application, so that you understand the different ways that you can qualify for emergency status.

In most cases you will need to ask for a separate emergency application that is different from the standard application. Generally, you will need to fill out both the standard and emergency applications in order to be granted emergency status and then found eligible for state public housing. The housing authority often will not make a decision on your emergency application and will not place you on the emergency list until you have provided them with all the documents they have requested. Then the housing authority will make a decision either granting or denying you emergency status. You may appeal an unfavorable decision. For more information, see Challenging a Denial of Housing.

If you have submitted all the requested documents for your emergency application and have not heard from the housing authority regarding whether your request for emergency status has been approved or denied, you should call the housing authority and ask them about it. Sometimes these emergency applications get lost or overlooked while the staff is waiting for verifications, so it is important to check up on this process. Even if you are approved for emergency status, the housing authority will still screen you for landlord references and other suitability issues. See Tenant Screening.

Federal public housing, multifamily subsidized housing, and Section 8 voucher programs

In general, the federal housing programs do not have a separate application for emergency status. Instead, the programs may have a variety of priorities and preferences, some of which may be based on an applicant's emergency need for housing. If you qualify for a preference, you can often move up on the waiting list faster. Information regarding these priorities and preferences is generally requested as part of the regular application. For more information, see Who Has Priority

What documents will I need to turn in when I apply?

You will likely be asked to give the housing authority or owner of multifamily housing documents to support the information in your application.14 It helps to get these documents together ahead of time and make several copies. Submit as much supporting documentation as possible with the original application. Housing authorities should accept your application even if you do not have all of your supporting documentation.

When you apply, you may need to submit copies of the following:

  • Documents showing your income, including pay stubs, tax forms, bank statements, and statements from government agencies about benefits.
  • Documents showing the immigration status of all household members, including birth certificates for those who were born in the United States. You may also need other immigration documents or a Social Security card (if a Social Security number has been assigned) for all household members.15 If you do not have legal immigration status, there are some restrictions about which programs you can apply to. See Immigrants and Housing.
  • Documents proving where you currently live.16
  • Landlord references.17 If you have a negative landlord reference, see Tenant Screening.
  • If you have a substance abuse problem, documents about your efforts in recovery, including letters from counselors or programs you have participated in.
  • If you have a disability and it is related to your application, documents showing that you have a disability. This could include confirmation that you get SSI or SSDI, or a note from a doctor. You do not necessarily have to say what the nature of your disability is, but if you are asking for reasonable accommodation, you will need to show a connection between your disability and the accommodation. See Reasonable Accommodations.

Keep in mind: A housing authority or owner can only request documents that you can reasonably get access to.18

Before applying for any housing, you should order your credit report and make sure it is correct. If you owe money to landlords, utility companies, or other creditors, you should take steps to set up payment plans with them. If you have a criminal record, there may be steps you need to take to correct any incorrect information and clear up certain records. For more information, see Tenant Screening.

If I do not have a Social Security number, can I apply for public or subsidized housing? 

Yes. Typically, a housing authority or landlord asks for your Social Security number (SSN) to confirm some of the information you provide on your application, such as your income. The rules about requesting SSNs, however, are different for federal and state housing programs.


Sometimes, for tracking purposes, state public benefit programs, like Food Stamps or TAFDC, assign "dummy" SSNs to household members who do not have SSNs.19 This is not the SSN and you should not use it as an SSN for other government programs.

Federal housing programs

For federal housing programs, including Section 8 vouchers, if you have an SSN you must provide the housing authority with SSN information for all members of your household over the age of six. If certain members of your household do not have SSNs, you must provide a written statement saying that no SSN has been assigned to that particular family member.20

State housing programs

For state housing programs, the application does ask for an SSN, but no application can be denied if that part is left blank.21 In this case, you should contact the housing authority and say that no SSN has been assigned and offer other documents to prove what your income is. For more information about how to deal with this situation, see Immigrants and Housing.

If I have a disability, what should I know about when I apply for public and subsidized housing?

If you have a disability and need assistance applying, the housing authority where you apply must help you get, complete, and return an application.22 Housing authorities, regional nonprofits, and subsidized landlords must also provide people with disabilities with information about how to request a reasonable accommodation.

A reasonable accommodation is the legal requirement that a housing authority or private landlord provide some service, or modification to an apartment, or change to a rule that enables a person with a disability to apply for, live in, and remain in an apartment. See Reasonable Accommodations.

If you have a disability, you may also be able to apply for a preference or priority that will move you up a waiting list more quickly. See Who Has Priority.

If someone in my household has a criminal record, do I have to report it on an application?

Yes. You must provide accurate information on your application. If you or anyone in your household has a criminal record, before you get to the top of a waiting list for housing you should request your own criminal offender record information (CORI, for short), which is a report produced by a state agency, to make sure there are no errors or that your name does not match up with someone else's criminal record. Once you see your CORI report, you may also find out about records that you can have removed or sealed. For more information, see Tenant Screening.

Do I have to include my whole housing history on the application?

Most applications will ask you to list every place where you have lived over a period of time (for example, during the past 5 years). While it may be tempting not to list a landlord whom you did not get along with, it is important to list every place you lived and not leave any gaps. For more information, see Tenant Screening.

Will the housing authority charge me to complete an application?

No.  Federal rules make it clear that housing authorities cannot charge application fees to anyone applying for public housing or Section 8 vouchers.23

How can I keep track of my search for housing?

Keeping track of your search for housing can be difficult, since you often have a lot of paper and are applying to many housing agencies and developments. But it is important to keep good records so you know where you have applied and where you are in the process. Keeping good records may also protect you if a housing agency or subsidized landlord makes a mistake—for example, in recording when your application came in or what documentation you submitted with it.

To help you keep track, you can use the Housing Search Log.

  • Set up one log sheet for each place where you apply. If you can, staple the log sheet to the front of a folder, using separate folders for each place.
  • Keep a master copy of all documents listed in What documents will I need to turn in when I apply? in a separate folder, plus several sets of copies of them. You should have that folder with you any time you apply for housing.
  • Use the log sheet to keep track of the type or types of housing you applied for, when you requested and submitted an application, and your waiting list number. Then use the log sheet to track the dates of every contact you have with the agency or landlord, including visits, calls, and letters. Also make notes about what happened and what was said.
  • Use the folders to keep copies of all papers that you send and receive, including each application you submit. The application itself will usually tell you the kind of housing you have applied for and how to contact the housing authority or landlord. Be sure to keep envelopes that you receive; they will show you when things were actually mailed.
  • Use the log sheet to keep track of what next steps you need to take.
  • Send a letter to every housing authority or landlord you applied to if you have a change in address or contact information, and keep a copy of those letters in case you need to prove that you notified anyone about an address change.

If you are applying for federal public and multifamily housing, a new rule requires housing authorities and owners must provide applicants with an option to ask to have a third party be notified about any issues with your application.24  This means that if you are working with a caseworker, you can ask that the caseworker receive your mail about your application.  But you can even identify a family member or friend.  This can be very helpful for you to keep track of your applications.


3 To apply for units in developments subsidized by MassHousing (formerly MHFA), a person must apply to the local housing authority in that town or city. 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 49.02 (defining project-based waiting list).

4 Application procedures must be written down in particular documents that describe the rules that housing authorities and subsidized landlords must follow. They are public documents, but often very lengthy. If you do have a question, you may want to ask to see a copy of the relevant document. The name of the document varies with the program, i.e., the Tenant Selection Plan (for MassHousing properties), the Administrative Plan (for Section 8 programs), or the Admissions and Continued Occupancy Plan (for federal public housing programs).

5 24 C.F.R. § 982.206(a).

6 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(1).

7 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207; State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09; Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 49.04(1 Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 53.04(1).

8 24 C.F.R. § 982.206(a).

9 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(1).

10 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.206; Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.207; State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.09; Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 49.04(1 Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.02(1), 5.09, and 53.04(1).

11 HUD Public Housing Occupancy Guidebook (June 2003), § 7.8; 760 C.M.R. § 5.08(1)(h).

12 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(1) and (2). Implicit in this regulation is that the local housing authority must also receive applications by mail.

13 State law requires that the LHA give a written receipt to an applicant upon submission of an application. See 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(2).

14 760 C.M.R. § 5.11.

15 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.259(a Section 8: 24 C.F.R. § 982.551(b State public housing, Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP): 760 C.M.R. §§ 5.05(2) and (3), and 5.12(1 Federal multifamily housing: HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3 REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 3.

16 24 C.F.R. §§ 5.508 and 5.510.

17 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(2).

18 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(2).

19 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(1).

21 DTA Field Operations Memo 98-25 (June 22, 1998).

22 24 C.F.R. § 5.216(a)(2) and 24 C.F.R. § 982.551(b).

23 See Public Housing Notice 2008-12: Wage Match for State Housing Program Tenants, page 2.

24 Federal: 24 C.F.R. §§ 8.4, 8.28(a)(1), 100.204; State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.05(1). 

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