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How to find low-cost housing for an elderly parent, disabled friend or yourself

Conrad LeBeau (March 2007)

Subsection 8 housing is a Federal program under the Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that pays up 70% or more of a single person or couple's rent if they meet certain income limitations. The income limitation is 80% of the average mean income in the county in which you are seeking subsidized housing. These income limits vary from county to county. Are you confused already?

Relax. I will show you how to find subsidized housing locally without having to wait several years, or using HUD vouchers that are still available for some individuals and families but remain largely under-funded. In fact, I'll show you how to bypass the long waiting lists and find a vacancy in your neighborhood within the next few months.

Most persons with low income, or collecting social security income (SSI) or social security disability (SSD) qualify for rent assistance if they are clear given instructions on how to proceed.

Local officials often tell people that there are no funds available and that there are hundreds and thousands of people ahead of them on waiting lists for section 8 housing and that the waiting list is several years long. This is true currently for most city and county rental assistance programs but not true for thousands of other lists held by managers of privately owned apartments buildings that offer section 8 subsidized housing to persons disabled or who are over 62 years of age. These property owners deal directly with HUD or local state administrators or Public Housing Authorities and not through city or county rental assistance programs. The general waiting list here can be 2 or 3 years long but as little as a few months if you qualify to get on a "Priority or Emergency Waiting List."

Example: While the City of Milwaukee has one rental assistance location and the County has another, private owners of section 8 subsidized housing hold over 130 apartment buildings in Milwaukee county alone and each building manager has its own waiting list. In other words, a person over 62 years old, or younger on either SSD or SSI will usually qualify to apply for residence at most if not all locations! By applying at several locations, you can be in several lines at once that since these lines are usually shorter than the ones managed by local city and county governments, in no time you will be moving into a subsidized apt where you will pay as little as 30% of your monthly income as rent while HUD pays the rest.

Now, it is unlikely that anyone will ever need to apply and get on the waiting list of 100 or more subsidized apt buildings, but if a person applies at 5 or 6 locations, the odds are that within 6 months or less, you will get a phone call that a vacancy has occurred and you can come in and sign a lease.

While Congress has limited funds for "rent assistance" for working persons and families who have low income, funding continues for retirees over 62 and for persons with disabilities and who are receiving either SSI or SSD.

When the search became personal

The search for affordable housing became personal about 12 years ago. The year was 1995. About 10 years earlier, around 1986, my parents, now retired, settled in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a historic town of small, colorful and quaint businesses located in a rural setting. They rented a small one-bedroom apartment that they could afford at the time since they both received social security income (SSI).

In September of 1994, my father, Herbert, passed on into the spirit world. He was 89 years of age. My mother, Stella, now a widow at 80, had to live on a limited social security income of less than $650 a month while paying rent of $550 a month. It doesn't take much math to see that her small savings of less than $1000 would soon dwindle and be gone.

In January of 1995, I began to search for lower cost housing and obtained a list of subsidized housings places in Ozaukee County, where the village of Cedarburg is located. I obtained the list by calling the Department of Aging for Ozaukee County.

I called several of the places listed and most of them had the following requirements. Persons had to be age 62 or older or be disabled and collecting social security if under age 62. At the time, personal assets, except for prepaid burial expenses, were limited to $2000. Today, 2007, the limit on assets has been increased or eliminated in most jurisdictions. Assets include pensions, real estate, savings and checking accounts, 401K accounts, stocks and bonds, annuities, cash value insurance policies and this list may not be complete.

Other federal programs like Social Security Disability (SSD) and Medicaid have an asset limit as part of the qualification requirements.

The list of places provided by the Dept of Aging that offered subsidized housing for the elderly and the disabled became the starting point of my search for affordable housing. I called 3 places in the Cedarburg area and they told me the minimum age was 62. They told me that there were no vacancies and there was a waiting list of 20 to 30 people for each building. They said I could come in and fill out an application to be added to the waiting list.

Stella and I went to see all three locations and she filled out the forms to be added to the general waiting list. It was at the last place that she applied at that we learned something that would later on turn out to be very good news. Linda, who took the application at Fischer Terrace, told us that because mother was paying more than 50% of her income as rent, she could be added to an Emergency Waiting List. What this did was to effectively move Stella to the front of the line. Since 85% of her monthly income was being paid on rent, she was more than qualified for the Emergency Waiting List also known as a Priority Waiting List.

Four months later I received a phone call that a vacancy had occurred. Stella paid a security deposit and signed a year's lease. She pays 30% of her monthly income as rent and HUD pays the balance. Initially, what she paid on her monthly rent was reduced from $550 to less than $160 a month and that also included heat. Today 12 years later and at 92 years of age, she continues to occupy the same one bedroom apt and continues to pay 30% of her monthly income as rent.

In researching the law for this article, I learned only recently that HUD rules require that persons paying over 50% of their monthly income in rent be placed on a "Priority Waiting List" also known as an Emergency Waiting List. What this does is to help those with the most urgent need for affordable housing first and foremost. This HUD rule is not widely known and will help the very poor when and if someone tells them about it.

What really matters is

1. the total monthly income and

2. the percent of the monthly income that is paid as rent.

In section 8 subsidized housing, the amount of rent you pay depends on your monthly income. Let us say you rent a one-bedroom apartment worth $800 a month at Country Estates. Your monthly income is $1000, of which $800 is from SSI and the other $200 is from a pension. You would pay 30% of the $1000 or $300 a month for rent and HUD would pay the difference of $500. (You now save $500 a month)

A second example is another person down the hall from you in the same building who earns just $600 a month in SSI and has no other source of income. Renting this apartment of the same size, that person would pay 30% of $600 or $180 on rent and HUD pays the difference of $620 a month. In both apartments, the total rent paid to the owner, Country Estates, is $800 a month but the amount of rent paid by the tenant varies from $180 to $300 and this depends on the total monthly income of the tenant.

Quick Start Summary

1. First, locate the list of all subsidized rental units in the county in which you want to live or move too. You can obtain this list from the Dept of Aging in your county. Their phone number is located in the front part of the White Pages under "your" county. Most Senior Centers also carry publications that list these rental units although they are not always marked as "subsidized." You may need to call each listing to find out if they are subsidized.

2. Don't live in the slums. Find an apt where over half of your income is paid as rent to quality you to get on a Priority Waiting List also known as an Emergency Waiting List. This puts you on a shorter waiting list for the next vacancy.

3. Make your best impression. Be friendly and honest, but not pretentious. Some older people tend to neglect personal hygiene. Before going to see the rental units, have the person take a shower, comb or style their hair, put on fresh clean clothes.

Note: if you take someone to apply for a rental unit who does not shower, has bad body odor and chews tobacco, don't expect to get a call anytime soon about a vacancy. Managers have a way to losing such applications.

4. Apply at several locations, at least 4, and better yet, 5 or 6 and in adjoining counties. Check with a courteous phone call once every 3 months to see if a vacancy has occurred and ask them where you are on the Emergency Waiting List. Waiting 2 or 3 months is better than waiting 2 or 3 years.

5. Disabled and under 62? If you are on SSI or SSD and are under 62 years of age, use this same list to apply at, as most of these places will also accept disabled persons of any age who are adults.

For additional information and help locating private owners of subsidized housing where you live, go to: Hud's Website and click on the link "Search for an Apartment." I did this for Milwaukee County and found 145 buildings with 1 bedroom Apts - all subsidized. Section 8 housing can save you hundreds of dollars each month. Good luck.


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