How Priority Is Determined for Low Income Housing

May 7th 2016

People in need of public housing should find out the specific preferences of their city or county when the locality assigns housing units. People able to provide proof of eligibility due to income, residence or other special needs may be able to move up the priority list.

Preference Based on Housing Type

Before any local public housing authority applies its own preference guidelines to determine a priority list for available low-income housing, it must consider the type of dwelling or unit available. The priority list for a given unit is determined based on the unit size, the type of housing project and any accessibility features before any other considerations are applied. For instance, if an available unit provides handicap accessibility, a family requiring this feature may be moved up the list ahead of other families who don't require it but who would otherwise rank higher on the priority list. Public housing authorities must match the characteristics of a unit to the characteristics of waiting families before determining any other preferences.

Preference Based on Income

Families with income that is no more than 30 percent of the median income of an area handled by a public housing authority are labeled as Tier I and given preference over families with higher incomes. At least 40 percent of all low-income housing units must be filled with Tier I families. Public housing authorities often have to reassess their priority lists based on this congressionally mandated requirement.

Preference Based on Need

Many cities establish a need-based preference list for low-income housing. While HUD specifically recommends setting aside public housing for victims of domestic abuse as one such need-based preference, cities may add their own priorities. For instance, New York City also sets aside low-income housing for families displaced by fire, homeless applicants, intimidated witnesses and those living in substandard conditions.

Preference Based on Residence

While public housing authorities are not allowed to require residence in a given city, county or other geographical area when making low-income housing decisions, they can give preference to people who are already residents of the stated area or who work there. However, public housing authorities cannot consider the length of residence when establishing preference.

Preference Based on Disability or Special Needs

While public housing authorities must consider accessibility before looking at any other preferences, they can also give priority to people who are disabled but do not need handicap-accessible housing units. In addition, they can set aside housing for people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems or HIV/AIDS.


Because there is a far greater need for low-income housing than an available supply of such housing, public housing authorities have to establish preference and priority lists to determine who should get access to open units. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development establishes guidelines for these priority lists, for the most part, city and county agencies are allowed to establish their own preferences for distributing low-income housing.

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