This document is complete, except we are still formatting the endnotes. 7/29

Community First: A Public Housing Resident's Guide

Made possible by the generous support of the Butler Family Fund

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is a nonprofit educational organization which conducts research and provides information on the United States' affordable housing crisis to the Congress, the executive branch, the media, its membership, and the public at-large. NLIHC publishes a weekly newsletter, Memo to Members, annual housing needs and housing budget reports, advocacy outreach materials, housing policy papers and conducts educational trainings. NLIHC is the nation's foremost organization in support of low income housing and helps foster the development of a growing number of state-based housing coalitions.

Copies of Community First: A Public Housing Resident's Guide are available from NLIHC. See note on availability, above.

Copyright (c) 1997 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
All rights reserved.

Any part of the original materials in this publication may be photocopied, reproduced and transmitted without permission. Please credit the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Requests for more information or materials should be directed to:

National Low Income Housing Coalition
1012 14th Street NW, Suite 1200
Washington, D.C. 20005
Phone: (202)662-1530
Fax: (202)393-1973
Visit our website:

Community First: A Public Housing Resident's Guide

Linda Couch
Tracy Kaufman
Wayne Sherwood
National Low Income Housing Coalition April 1997


A sincere thank you to the Butler Family Fund for the financial support to produce and distribute this book.

We would also like to gratefully acknowledge the input of Helen Dunlap and the contributions of Deirdre McIntyre. Jane Enright designed this guide.

Deborah Austin, Linda Couch and Tracy Kaufman are on the staff of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Wayne Sherwood is the principal of Sherwood Housing Services, Inc. of Takoma Park, Maryland.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Admission into Public Housing
Chapter 2 Rents and Other Lease Requirements
Chapter 3 Evictions and Grievance Procedures
Chapter 4 A Positive Look to the Future
Chapter 5 Welfare Reform
Chapter 6 Severely Distressed Public Housing
Chapter 7 Fair Housing
Chapter 8 Weighing In: The Consolidated Plan


The purpose of this book is to inform public housing residents, both established and new, of their rights and opportunities to participate in their communities. Public housing regulations and residents' corresponding opportunities are in constant flux. It is important that, given this flux, public housing residents have the tools to understand these changing challenges, opportunities, rights and responsibilities. With the generous support of the Butler Family Fund, the National Low Income Housing Coalition is proud to present Community First: A Public Housing Resident's Guide.

Community First is a handbook, a guide which gives information while making it easy to gain access to more information. As you read through the book, share your thoughts and questions with your neighbors, community leaders, local housing authority staff, with your friends and with your family. Honest discussion is one way we can learn more about how changes to our housing will affect ourselves, those around us and our entire communities. We urge you to get in contact with your local housing coalition and local community development corporation. Open up your dialogue with them. These groups are true resources which can strengthen our homes and our communities with everyone's help. As real as the programs described in this book are, the possibility of future changes is just as real. It is up to us to make sure that our communities always come first.

The chapters explore various facets of housing, community development and social welfare law which directly impact public housing residents. The National Low Income Housing Coalition urges you to freely share this book with others and to reproduce pages and/or the entire guide without seeking our permission. It is our goal that this book be widely distributed.

Linda Couch
National Low Income Housing Coalition

Chapter 1: Admission into Public Housing

Resident Selection Each housing authority is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to have its own written policy regarding the selection and admission of residents. Residents can request to see these policies. All applicants must be at least "lower income." Lower income is defined as having an income less than 80 percent of the median income for the area as defined by HUD (with adjustments for smaller and larger families.) Before 1996, federal preferences gave admission priority to various categories of people. These federal preferences have been suspended (beginning in 1996) through the yearly budget process and housing authorities are not currently required to follow them. Housing authorities can establish their own local preferences (see below.)

While having to admit a certain number of very low income people (defined as someone whose income is less than half the area median income), housing authorities may also consider the following factors when making resident selection decisions: the applicant's history of paying rent and other financial obligations; any criminal activity the applicant was involved with; and/or the applicant's income (more and more, housing authorities want a broad range of incomes within each of their projects.)

Pre-Admission Prior to admission, the housing authority will determine: eligibility for admission annual income of resident (total income from all sources received by each member of the family for the 12 months preceding the income determination) adjusted income (annual income with allowances for dependents and elderly families) "total tenant payment" (resident's monthly rent payment) once in the public housing unit

The housing authority must then verify the information it has collected from the applicant. To do this, the housing authority is authorized to ask prospective residents to sign a HUD-approved "release and consent" form. This document will allow the housing authority to collect the necessary documents to verify income information from identified employers, past landlords and government offices, for example.

The housing authority, in a process called recertification, will reexamine the incomes and composition of all resident families at least once every 12 months and determine whether the family's "unit size" (size of apartment) is still appropriate. Furthermore, if the family's income has changed, these changes must be verified by the housing authority and appropriate adjustments to the rent and resident payment must be made.

HUD has developed a computer matching system which will allow HUD to provide housing authorities with two reports each month for all residents with any matching information found between HUD's "Multifamily Resident Characteristics System" and in the Social Security Administration's files. The computer matching compares resident information in the HUD system to social security information about three months prior to the annual recertification done by each housing authority. Housing authorities can rely on this report to re-verify resident-supplied information. By June of 1997, HUD expects all housing authorities to be using this computer matching technology.

Local Preferences Each housing authority can establish its own local preferences to govern the selection of applicants for admission. The process for determining what these preferences are must include public notices, public comment periods and official adoption of the preferences by the board of commissioners of the housing authority. The scope of local preferences is wide.

A "preference" literally lists groups of people (homeless, elderly, disabled, families with children, those involuntarily displaced, working families, families with members enrolled in an educational program, those paying more than 50% of their income on housing, etc.) and ranks, in order of preference, how the housing authority will admit these people into available units. A preference is used to bring those people (homeless, elderly, disabled, families with children, etc.) to the top of a housing authority's waiting list because their need for housing is seen as an emergency or as more vital than others' housing needs on the waiting list. The process of developing preferences is very important. Who is able to jump ahead of the standard waiting list should be a community decision based upon community needs.

Waiting Lists for Admission Waiting lists are maintained by the housing authority for all units and projects within its geographic boundaries. Those signing up for a public housing unit will be placed on this community-wide list for housing. A housing authority can close its waiting list after it has more than one year's worth of future applicants on its waiting list.

Certain larger housing authorities (those with more than 1,250 units) can apply to both the federal and local divisions of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity office of HUD for approval to maintain their own project-specific waiting list (called a "site-based" waiting list.) Smaller housing authorities may apply for a waiver from current regulations to use a site-based waiting list.

If you want to sign up for a particular housing authority's housing, contact that housing authority and inquire about the specific project. Remember that not all housing authorities will offer project-specific waiting lists, but many do. For admission to general (that is, non-elderly) units, regardless of where the housing authority is taking applications, it must take applications for all of its sites, not just the one where the office is. Applicants can apply to as many of the housing authority's sites as they wish. Those currently on a waiting list looking to sign up for a particular site will keep their original application date and can use it for the site-based application.

Waiting Lists for Other Types of Housing Assistance If you are currently in a public housing unit and wish to move to a Section 8 voucher or certificate housing assistance program, you must sign up on the appropriate waiting list at your housing authority. Each housing authority has its own policies about waiting lists; you should ask about your housing authority's policies.

If you want to move to Section 8 assistance it might be difficult. Chances are, local preferences will give priority assistance to those unhoused or ill-housed and you will not make it to the top of a Section 8 list unless you fit into one of these groups. If your family composition (more or fewer children, for example) or situation (a recent disability, for example) changes you can apply to the housing authority for different housing assistance. This could be in the form of moving to the Section 8 program. In these types of cases, you would be treated as a transfer and local preferences would be waived for your shift to other assistance.

Some housing authorities maintain one list for all types of assistance (public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and Section 8 certificates.) With these lists, you can stay on the list and wait until you are offered the type of assistance you prefer. Again, how a local housing authority manages its waiting list(s) is its own decision. A brief call to your housing authority's office should answer any questions you have about waiting lists.

Applicant Screening Larger housing authorities are authorized to screen applicants through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) via a local or state law enforcement agencies. The housing authority can request a criminal records search through local or state law enforcement agencies. If the housing authority, finding a criminal history, wants more information they can directly contact the FBI for a fingerprint check and full criminal history explanation. Background and fingerprint checks will be done on the FBI's interstate data system. Law enforcement agencies carrying out this screening of applicants are authorized to let the housing authority know whether it has found a criminal history within the FBI database.

Chapter 2: Rents and Other Lease Requirements

Rents Rent (or "total tenant payment") for a family is the greatest of the following: 30 percent of family monthly adjusted income 10 percent of monthly income if the family receives welfare assistance, the portion of this assistance which is specifically designated for housing costs a $25.00 to $50.00 "minimum rent" set by the housing authority

Minimum rents were authorized by the federal government in 1996 through the appropriations process and have been continued through 1997. In the future, minimum rents could remain, change or be eliminated. The minimum rent law requires each family to pay a monthly minimum rent of at least $25.00. Housing authorities have the right to increase this minimum to $50.00 a month per household. If the housing authority is thinking of raising its minimum rent above $25.00, it must consider the potential impact of such charges on the lowest income residents of the housing authority.

For minimum rents, there is a three-month hardship waiver. Housing authorities are urged by HUD not to evict residents because of their inability to pay the minimum rents. Instead of eviction, HUD encourages housing authorities to determine how much of a hardship these minimum rents are on families. Housing authorities determine "hardship" by re-verifying resident income and noting whether these residents are awaiting other governmental assistance. "Hardship waivers" for paying minimum rents can be approved by the housing authority for as long as three months. Furthermore, the housing authority can use funds from its operating reserves to pay all or part of required minimum rents (although few housing authorities have such reserves.)

It is up to the individual housing authority to establish a process for determining "hardship" cases among its residents. According to HUD, housing authorities may establish such processes, refrain from evicting residents and otherwise assist residents to avoid eviction. If you believe your minimum rents are too high, talk to your housing authority and make sure your situation is being assessed for a hardship waiver.

Leases The lease will contain: all the names of the people who will live in the dwelling unit an identification of the dwelling unit itself (the length of the lease and provisions for renewal of the lease) an explanation of all payments from the resident to the housing authority due under the lease (the amount of rent the resident shall pay, any late payment charges the housing authority wishes to impose and how extra maintenance charges will be assessed) an explanation for reverification of rent and family composition an explanation of the resident rent payment recertification process an explanation of the resident's right to use and occupy the unit an explanation of the housing authority's obligations

The housing authority is obligated to: maintain the dwelling unit and the project in a decent, safe and sanitary condition comply with requirements of applicable building codes, housing codes, and HUD regulations for health and safety make necessary repairs to the unit keep common areas of the project clean and safe maintain in good and safe working order electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating and other appliances, including elevators provide and maintain facilities for garbage and other waste removed from the unit supply running water, hot water and heat (where appropriate) notify the resident of the specific grounds for any proposed adverse action by the housing authority such as lease termination, transfer of the resident to another unit and the imposition of charges for maintenance or repair

The resident is obligated: not to sublease the dwelling unit not to take on boarders or lodgers to keep the unit clean and in safe condition to dispose of all garbage and waste appropriately not to damage or destroy the unit of the project not to engage in any criminal activity (or drug-related criminal activity)

Social Leases Some housing authorities are adopting "social leases" in which the lease requires certain actions of the residents. For example, a resident may be subject to work or volunteer requirements as a condition of being able to receive housing assistance and also to time limits on how long you can receive housing assistance. This is a very new and gray area. Do not hesitate to question the legality and contents of your housing authority's social lease.

‘One Strike, You're Out' Provisions In early 1996, HUD was allowed to enforce "one strike, you're out" provisions within public housing. Under the One Strike provisions, housing authorities have the authority to deny occupancy on the basis of illegal drug-related activities and alcohol abuse when such abuse threatens the health, safety or peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents.

Under One Strike, expedited grievance procedures can be carried out when an eviction involves criminal or drug-related activity. Individual housing authorities can adopt their own special, expedited schedules for eviction under these circumstances. Currently, the One Strike provision only applies to public housing authorities with more than 250 units under its management. However, HUD urges smaller housing authorities to keep crime records, report incidents to local officials, administer rigorous screening criteria and evict residents who engage in criminal activity.

Of Note

Residents Oversee a Contract with a Private Company That Manages Their Development: Commonwealth Development (Fidelis Way), Boston, Massachusetts

The Commonwealth (Fidelis Way) development in Boston was deteriorating and needed major rehabilitation and management improvements. The Boston Housing Authority contracted for the major reconstruction of the development. When it was reoccupied, a three party-contract was adopted for the on-going management of the development by a private housing management corporation, Corcoran Management of Quincy, Massachusetts.

The resident organization at the development is one of the three parties to the contract. The other two parties are the Boston Housing Authority and Corcoran Management.

One unique aspect of this arrangement is that the resident organization has the right to terminate the contract with the management company if it is not satisfied with the company's performance.

Each year, as a part of the contract, a specific set of performance measures is negotiated. The resident organization then monitors the performance of the management corporation according to those indicators.

    For more information contact:
    Boston Housing Authority
    55 Chauncy Street
    Boston MA 02108
    Phone: (617)451-1250
    Sandra Henriquez, Executive Director

    Corcoran Management Company
    Braintree, MA
    Phone: (617)849-0011

Chapter 3: Evictions and Grievance Procedures Lease

Termination / Eviction

Your lease can be terminated for not complying with the rental agreement, failing to carry out obligations under any state landlord and tenant act or any other good cause. Generally, a housing authority is required to provide a public housing resident with the opportunity for an administrative hearing before commencement of eviction proceedings in the local landlord-tenant court. However, for some criminal-related evictions the housing authority may bypass the administrative hearing.

The landlord's (this is the property owner or their representative or the managing agent or their representative) decision to terminate the tenancy must be in writing and must:

state the date of the eviction

The public housing authority can evict the resident from the unit either by:

Generally, the housing authority is required to provide a public housing resident with the opportunity for an administrative hearing before commencement of eviction proceedings in court. However, this administrative hearing may be bypassed at the discretion of the housing authority if the health and/or safety of any resident, staff or nearby resident of the housing complex is threatened.

Eviction Timelines

In addition to the above pieces of a lease, the lease must also outline the process for the housing authority or the resident to terminate the lease. The housing authority must give 14 days written notice of lease termination because of failure to pay rent. For lease violations which threaten the health or safety of a project employee or other resident, the housing authority must give a "reasonable" amount of time but not more than 30 days prior to eviction. For all other lease violations, the housing authority must give 30 days notice before eviction.

For example, if a housing authority wants to evict a resident for not paying rent there must be 14 days between the written notice of eviction and the actual eviction of the resident from the housing authority.

When the housing authority gives a resident notice of termination of lease, it must also tell the resident that s/he has a right to a grievance hearing. If the resident decides to have a grievance hearing (also called an administrative hearing), then any action regarding the eviction in state court cannot be completed until this grievance hearing has occurred.

State laws can have a great impact on eviction proceedings. The timelines mentioned above (eviction after 14 days for nonpayment of rent, eviction after a "reasonable" amount of time but no more than 30 days for threatening health and safety, and thirty days for all other violations) are federal timelines. State timeline laws have precedence over federal timeline laws. Call your local legal aid office or residents association to find out more about your state's timelines.

Grievance Procedures

If a resident has a problem or specific grievance with the housing authority and wants to take formal action to get the issue resolved, the resident can take advantage of grievance procedures. Grievance procedures are interactive: where there are problems that need to be resolved formally, both the resident and the housing authority must follow proper procedure to insure everyone has a chance to be heard and to look at the evidence.

If the housing authority has a grievance against a resident, it must follow the grievance procedures. For example, the housing authority must give residents notice of the specific grounds for any adverse action the housing authority is about to take against the resident (evicting the resident, for example) and provide an opportunity for a hearing and the examination of relevant documents. The public housing authority may exclude drug and criminal activity evictions from its grievance procedure.

The housing authority must give a copy of its grievance procedures to the resident and to resident organizations. Before changing grievance procedures, the public housing authority must give residents and resident organizations 30 days to comment.

Any grievance from a resident can be given to the housing authority or to the project's office. This way, any grievance can be informally discussed and settled without a hearing. A summary of this grievance must be written up by the housing authority and a copy of this summary given to the resident. However, a resident can request to obtain a hearing if he or she wishes. To do so, the resident must submit a written request to the housing authority or the project office soon after she or he receives the summary. This request must include the reasons for the grievance and the action or relief sought. A hearing officer or hearing panel will then be chosen by the housing authority with consultation from resident organizations or by a method approved by the majority of residents (see Grievance Hearing section.) If the grievance involves the amount of rent or payment of rent, the resident must pay the monthly rental amount to the housing authority; this will be placed in an escrow account along with all other rental payments until the complaint is resolved by the hearing panel or officer. This escrow account must be established before the hearing can take place.

Landlord-tenant laws vary widely from state to state. Chances are, your state law says something about the handling of grievances between landlords and residents; you should also learn about these statutory obligations within your state landlord-resident law. Call your local legal services office for information on a particular issue.

The Grievance Hearing

The hearing must be "fair." This means that the resident must have the opportunity to examine any housing authority documents that are directly relevant to the hearing before the hearing. The resident must be allowed to copy these documents (and must pay for the copying.) If the resident is not allowed to copy a document, then this document cannot be used by the housing authority during the hearing. The resident can choose to have a lawyer or other person represent them at the hearing. The resident has the right to present evidence to support their complaint and the right to object to statements made by the housing authority or the project's management. The housing authority must provide reasonable accommodation (defined as sign language interpreters, readers, accessible locations, or attendants) for persons with disabilities to participate in the hearing.

Any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by residents, those living in the immediate vicinity of the premises, or the staff of the housing authority is grounds for eviction. Also grounds for eviction is any drug-related criminal activity on or near such premises engaged in by a resident, a member of the resident's household or any guest or other person under the resident's control. No one may be evicted without judicial action pursuant to state or local law, and in accordance with HUD's due process procedures.

Chapter 4: A Positive Look to the Future

Of Note

Values-Oriented Community Building Creates Results-Oriented Environment: Renaissance Village, Cleveland Ohio

Renaissance Village is a public housing development dedicated to providing a comprehensive array of community facilities and services for low-income public housing residents, with special attention to drug and alcohol abuse treatment and prevention programs for residents, and health services for mothers and children.

Resident involvement has been one of the key factors in the success of this program. Residents have assessed the needs of other residents, established program priorities, participated in program activities and services (involving resident employment opportunities), and developed a set of acceptable standards of behavior that became requirements for their continued occupancy in Renaissance Village.

Residents are now working with the Housing Authority to develop literacy and job preparation programs that will help many public housing residents overcome deficiencies in these areas.

    For information contact:

    Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority
    Claire Freeman, CEO Central
    Office Phone: (216) 348-5000
    Resident and Community Relations Phone: (216) 348-5130

Tenant Opportunity Program

The Tenant Opportunity Program (TOP) is one of a series of HUD programs that directly supports resident services and economic empowerment programs. However, it one of the few funding awards that is made directly to residents for residents. TOP replaces the Resident Management Technical Assistance Grant (RMTAG) program and is a tool for resident economic empowerment. Like RMTAG, TOP grants provide funding for technical assistance related to resident management activities. The program also funds a much broader array of activities. Eligible activities include: job training, business development, on-site security, leadership development and money to start new resident organizations. Groups applying for the first time may receive up to $100,000. Resident organizations that have received RMTAG funding in the past may not receive an amount which exceeds $100,000 when combined with prior grants. Congressional support for the program has cooled recently amid allegations of improper expenditures. The 1996 HUD budget bill prohibited further spending for the TOP program pending a review by HUD to insure sound program operations. Because of this, HUD did not go forward with a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for TOP funds in 1996. The NOFA is would have explained the details for applying for the funds and provided an application kit and deadline.

Funding for TOP dropped to $5 million in FY97 and the budget request for FY98 is $5 million.

Resident organizations, including resident councils and resident management corporations with democratically elected boards, are eligible to apply. According to HUD's budget plan, a NOFA for $20 million will be issued sometime during 1997.

There are several other HUD-funded initiatives which a focus on resident self-sufficiency. The following is a partial list. To get more information call HUD's Office of Community Relations and Involvement at (202)619-8201. Economic Development Supportive Services Program Family Investment Centers Early Childhood Development Centers Youth Development Initiative Youth Apprenticeship Program Drug Elimination Family Self-Sufficiency Program

Probably the largest source of funds for resident initiatives is the public housing modernization program. Even though this money does not go directly from HUD to resident organizations, many housing authorities use a significant proportion of these funds for resident initiatives. Up to 15% of modernization funds can be used for management improvements; this has been broadly interpreted. The federal appropriation for modernization activities last year was $2.5 billion.

Of Note
Cooperation between Residents and the Housing Authority Builds Businesses and Jobs: Jordan Downs, Los Angeles, California

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), while modernizing the 700-unit Jordan Downs development, decided to maximize the potential opportunities for resident employment and economic empowerment. HACLA helped residents to launch the Jordan Downs Security Co., a resident-owned firm that in little more than a year has obtained more than $1 million in housing authority contracts and parceled the work to scores of residents. Then, with the profits from the security firm, they set up a resident-run moving company, and followed that with a pest-control business. Eventually they hope to open a store.

So far, about 70 residents are working full-time and part-time at Jordan Downs, the first of the city's 21 federally funded housing projects to establish its own companies. The goal of forming resident companies is to begin building communities from the inside out, so that people have the choice to move on. Residents in other city housing projects are starting to pursue similar companies.

The housing authority itself has set up the Kumbaya Construction Co. to hire and train residents to remodel units and gain needed experience to land good-paying, unionized jobs. The jobs, while limited in number, have a ripple effect, creating a more positive attitude. Some Jordan Downs resident leaders are convinced that with more jobs, public housing can be made a better place to live. Others look forward to using their increased earnings to help them move out of public housing altogether.

    For information contact:

    Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles
    2600 Wilshire Blvd.
    PO Box 17157, Foy Station
    Los Angeles CA 90057
    Main office phone: (213) 252-1810
    Don Smith, Executive Director
    Ed Griffin, Phone: (213)252-1872
    Dorothy Tolliver, Jordan Downs resident leader.

Campus of Learners*

In the Fall of 1996, the Secretary of HUD announced a new initiative to strengthen partnerships between public housing authorities and educational institutions. Known as "Campus of Learners," the goal of the initiative is to improve the educational opportunities of public housing residents by linking the considerable resources of universities, schools, and corporations to the public housing developments.

Residents in public housing authorities designated as a Campus of Learners will sign education-oriented contracts whereby they promise to enroll in education programs. The package of programs and trainings varies depending on the entity that is working with the housing authority. For example, in Union City, New Jersey, the housing authority will join a partnership with public school system to offer technology training centers which will connect residents to Union City Online. Residents will be able to get technology-based training courses online. The school also intends to offer technical and job training to over 1000 residents and create a model for intergenerational learning. In Cuyahoga, Ohio, the housing authority is working with three area colleges to provide interactive classrooms for distance learning. College students will provide in-home training and demonstrations of software applications.

Twenty-five housing authorities have received Campus of Learners designation. To date, HUD has not provided any new funding for these activities. However, it is an eligible use of funding under the HOPE VI program and HUD has encouraged HOPE VI grantees to use their money for this purpose. Funding through the modernization program is also available for these activities (e.g., remodeling a building for high technology use.) In most instances the housing agency provides the physical facility and other partners provide the resources.

The announcement of this initiative has sparked the interest of educational partners in public housing sites across the country. Despite the fact that Congress has neither authorized nor appropriated any funds specifically for this purpose, some tangible good may result.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Campus of Learners you should call your housing authority, your local HUD office and the HUD Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Relations and Involvement in Washington, D.C. at (202)619-8201 to get more information.

*Source-HUD webpage:

National Low Income Housing Coalition
1012 Fourteenth St, NW #1200
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 662-1530
(202) 393-1973 (f)
E-Mail Address:

Return to Top of this Page

Write Us! Go to our clickable e-mail and phone extension list.

return home buttonReturn to NLIHC Homepage

Copyright © 1996 NLIHC, for information please call Deirdre McIntyre(202)662-1530x226