Find Federal Rent Assistance for Families

May 7th 2016

Image Courtesy of Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Federal rental assistance was created by the federal government to help low-income families afford modest housing across the United States. These rental options exist in nearly every city and town in the country. There are four major programs:

  • Section 8 Project Based Assistance
  • Housing Choice Vouchers
  • Public Housing
  • Rural Rental Assistance

These four federal programs provide rental assistance for a little over 90 percent of all households that use federal rental assistance. There are several smaller federal programs that are designed to fill the gap when other types of assistance contracts expire. However, these smaller programs are not widely available across the United States. At least 40 percent of the households that make use of federal rental assistance are families. 

Section 8 Project Based Assistance

Section 8 Project Based Assistance is often confused with the Housing Choice Vouchers Program. The primary difference between the two is that the rental units involved in the Section 8 program are owned by private individuals who sign multi-year contracts with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Assistance is available to individuals with incomes that are less than 30 percent of the area's median income. Tenants pay approximately 30 percent of their income, or a base rate of $25 per month for rent and utilities. The federal government pays the rest. Since the program is controlled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, families can find local offices that take applications for Section 8 Project Based Assistance via the website. 

Housing Choice Vouchers

Families applying for a Housing Choice Voucher must also meet federal income guidelines. The income in these households must not exceed 30 percent of the median income in the area. The vouchers cover the majority of the fair market value for a rental unit or house. When a family obtains a voucher, it is allotted 60 days to find housing. Families can rent any house or apartment that meets the federal housing quality standards. The landlord must be willing to accept the voucher, and the house must be priced reasonably according to local fair market rates. Families are required to pay a minimum of $50 for rent and utilities, but the voucher covers the rest of the cost. Sometimes vouchers can be used to help with mortgage payments to help low-income families purchase a home. The website provides a list of local agencies that accept applications for the Housing Choice Vouchers program. 

Public Housing

The federal government created public housing units in order to provide low-income families with safe rental housing. The units come in a variety of types and sizes and are available in nearly every city in the United States. The Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees these units. This organization is also in charge of planning and developing these communities. Families typically apply to live in public housing at a local HUD field office. Families are expected to pay a base rent of $50, and all utilities are included in the total rent. The $50 payment is required even if this payment equates to more than 30 percent of the tenant's income. 

Rural Rent Assistance

This program is available to low-income families who reside in eligible rental projects classified as Rural Rental Housing, Farm Labor Housing and Rural Cooperative Housing. These projects are financed by the Rural Housing Service and backed by the USDA. To qualify, families must have incomes that are below 30 percent of the median income for the area, and monthly rent payments must exceed 30 percent of the family’s monthly income. To apply, families must fill out an application at their local USDA Rural Development field office. Field office locations are listed on the website. 

Waiting Lists for Federal Rent Assistance

Unfortunately, there are waiting lists for rental assistance. Every field office that maintains these programs also has a backlog of applications. Families must regularly check in and confirm that rental assistance is still needed. Wait times can often be as long as five years. For families experiencing the most need, the following situations may lead to a shorter wait time:

  • Residency in a domestic violence shelter
  • Residency in a homeless shelter
  • Referral from Child Protective Services
  • Disability

Federal rental assistance is available. Wait times may be discouraging, but if the need is truly there, a workaround is often possible. If a field office address is unavailable at the site, local housing offices may be located through the United Way website at If all else fails, a trip to the local Department of Health and Human Services should lead a family to the right rental assistance resources.

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