Search Strategies for Finding Affordable Apartments

May 7th 2016

For renters, the search for affordable housing is one of the most important challenges in building and maintaining a sustainable budget. Housing is the largest single expense most families face each month. Prioritizing affordability in the search for a suitable apartment is the key to financial success in the years the unit is occupied, and adopting the right strategy before the search begins is the key to making the right decisions before the lease is signed. A number of options are available for renters seeking affordable apartments, and each may be tailored to renters' individual approaches.

Public Housing

Designated low-income public housing is a reasonable solution to fitting rent into an already-crowded budget. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that families not pay more than 20 percent of their gross income to cover housing costs. Families paying more than 30 percent are considered ""burdened."" Burdened low-income individuals and families are eligible to lease subsidized public housing where it's available.

In 2015, over 2.2 million U.S. citizens occupied subsidized housing under lease terms designed to keep rent to a manageable 10 percent of income. To qualify for public housing, applicants must earn less than a threshold set by their local housing authority, provide references attesting to a good rental history and possibly submit to an inspection of their current residence. Space in public housing is generally limited, so this option is best for tenants who can afford to join a waiting list for months or years.

Shared Housing

For people who need housing right away, or who do not qualify for public housing, sharing a rental can be an effective solution. Shared housing usually consists of either renting a room in another family's dwelling or taking out a joint lease. The advantage of sharing a residence is in paying only a fraction of the total rent and utilities, and in sharing many of the non-rent household expenses such as groceries or Internet service. On the other hand, many people have trouble living with a roommate, and conflicts are not always easy to solve. This is especially true for renting a room in another person's home, as conflicts often ends with the eviction or voluntary relocation of the renter.

Housing Aid

Housing vouchers, sometimes referred to as Section 8 aid, are an attractive alternative to public or shared housing. Under the Section 8 program, renters are allowed to choose any qualified residence, from studio apartments to single-family houses, and a large fraction of the rent is paid directly to the landlord via a federally-funded voucher program.

Homes rented under Section 8 must be inspected to meet minimum standards for safety and amenities. Additionally, residents must meet certain income requirements and, as with public housing, wait times can be long. To take advantage of the voucher program, renters must sign up with a local public housing agency and verify their income and expenses. Once the renter's name is selected from the waiting list, an apartment may be chosen and a lease negotiated. Assistance is then paid directly to the property owner as long as the renter remains eligible.

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