Affordable Housing and Homelessness in America: Navigating a Confusing World

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For those who work in affordable housing or homelessness in the USA, it is very easy to walk into a room and throw out terms like continuum of care, Section 8, project based, tenant based, LIHTC, WBARS or any other smorgasbord of words and phrases.  However, for the lay person the world of affordable housing can be upsetting, confusing and downright frustrating.  Lets take a walk down the affordable housing and homeless road and figure out what these programs are what they do at their simplest core.

Public Housing:

This is a federally funded program.  There are over a million public housing units spread out over the USA.  For those who live in public housing, they pay 30% of their income as rent.  The local housing authority or housing organization in the community usually acts as the landlord.  The federal government pays money to the housing authority/agency to make up for the small amount of rent that those living in public housing pay.  The program is under-funded.  This makes maintenance and repairs sometimes hard to do.  If you live in public housing, you probably have to verify your income at least once a year.  If you are in a big city, you might have a landlord who is not the housing authority.  Sometimes medium to large housing authorities hire outside companies to manage the properties.

Housing Choice Voucher or Tenant Based Voucher or Section 8:

Much like the public housing program, a tenant pays 30% of their income for rent.  The big difference is you will take a voucher and find your own landlord on the private market.  Once a private landlord accepts your voucher, you can move in.  Any rent you do not pay, the housing authority would pay to the landlord.  It is more complex than this but it is the basics.  You will have to re-certify your income at least once a year in most cases.

Project Based Voucher:

This is a voucher that is packaged up and attached to an actual unit.  That means if you move into a unit with a project based voucher, you cannot take it with you.  The voucher helps ensure that the unit will provide enough income so the housing authority can care for maintenance and upkeep.   Many people who move into a project based voucher unit can request an exit voucher or in simple terms a tenant based voucher after 1 year.  That allows you to go on the private market.

Sponsor Based Assistance:

This is another form of money or subsidy assistance that is usually given to non-profits.  The non-profit can then assist people with different housing issues.

Tax Credit:

Tax credits are complex and not easy to explain.  The simplest thing to say is that tax credits are the number one way that affordable housing is developed in America.  It is also the number one way that older units get fixed up.  If you live in a tax credit unit, you will probably need to income qualify.  That means you need to be a certain income or below.  You will have to continue to provide income information the entire time you live in this unit but the burden might decrease.  You might live in a tax credit unit that is also public housing or project based voucher.  Confusing huh? You might also take a tenant based voucher and move into a tax credit unit.  That means you might need to do paperwork for multiple programs.  You might also have a lot of inspections.

HOPE IV or Choice Neighborhoods:

Big programs that provided millions of dollars for redevelopment and development of affordable housing.  Most of the time the programs mentioned above are involved in these projects.   However; there might be some extra money for services to help those living in those communities with jobs or neighborhood development.

Centralized Intake:

This is less of a program and more of a methodology to streamline how homeless people are served.  The idea is to allow those seeking housing or rapid rehousing services to go to one place where all the availability and resources are handled by one organization working with partners.  HMIS is a database that most centralized intake programs utilize to track those who are coming into and leaving the homeless system.

Emergency Shelter Grants:

These are moneys given to shelters to either build, develop, rehab or fund maintenance and upkeep of shelters for those experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping.


There are so many programs and sub-programs that it can be hard to understand it all.  I only touched on a few of the programs.  Do you work in affordable housing and homelessness in the USA?  We would love to hear about your experiences at




Author: jcrites

Josh Crites is an American social housing professional with both practical and research experience. He has worked at 3 social housing companies in the USA in roles ranging from policy and operations to process improvement and strategy. Josh is a former Alexander von Humboldt German Chancellor Fellow. During that fellowship, Josh researched and worked with social housing companies in Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, England, Estonia and Spain. He is an avid writer and advocate for the provision of social housing around the world.

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