All PHAs have significant flexibility in establishing procedures and priorities for waiting lists and tenant selection, within the overall framework provided by federal law. Each PHA is required to establish an Annual Plan that describes the PHAs approach to meeting local housing needs among low and very low-income people. The PHA Plan describes eligibility for housing assistance and tenant screening and selection criteria. Sometimes the selection process is based either on first-come, first-served or on a lottery among all people on the PHAs waiting lists. However, many PHAs establish priorities or preferences for households with particular needs who are on the waiting list for public housing or voucher assistance or both. Federal law places some constraints on these preferences; for example, they may not conflict with fair housing law. But among the types of applicants for housing assistance for whom PHAs may establish preferences are veterans, people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people who are ready to graduate from PSH or transitional housing, and chronically homeless people.
Generally, PHA waiting list preferences are applied only to applicants who are already on waiting lists for housing assistance, which can be a challenge in many communities in which PHA waiting lists are closed because of the large number of applicants already on the lists. A few PHAs have implemented solutions to this challenge by amending their PHA Plan to allow opening the waiting list for homeless applicants who qualify for a preference because they meet specified criteria. The waiting list may remain open for people who qualify for the preference for a limited time period (which could be a year or more), or the PHA may establish a limited preference for a specific number of applicants that is tied to an initiative designed to create housing opportunities for homeless individuals or families. Community partners may help identify eligible homeless people and provide assistance with the PHAs application process, as well as helping with housing search, move-in costs, and providing furniture, food and other essentials.
An example of the operation of a limited preference for homeless people comes from a current study of alternative housing and service models for homeless families. In several communities across the country, PHAs are collaborating with the HUD-sponsored Family Options Study,12 which seeks to compare outcomes for homeless families who receive different types of assistance, including a permanent housing subsidy without services, usually a HCV. Each participating PHA amended its Administrative Plan to add a preference for homeless families participating in the study, designating the number of vouchers that would be set aside for study participants. As families are referred from the study, the PHA puts them on the waiting list and then immediately starts the process of issuing the voucher.
A similar process may occur when project-based vouchers are used to support individuals or families who want to live in particular PSH developments. The PHA establishes a site-based waiting list of people who want to live at the PSH project, and those households are available immediately to fill vacancies at the project. Site-based waiting lists have the advantage of ensuring that the next vacancy is made available to a person who is currently homeless and must be able to benefit from the particular housing and services available at that project.
Site-based waiting lists can facilitate choice for people seeking housing assistance and are consistent with SAMHSAs Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) fidelity model for supportive housing.13 Many people with serious mental illness (SMI) or other disabilities want to live in integrated housing settings that include neighbors without disabilities, while others want to live in PSH that offers on-site supports and social connections with others who share similar needs and experiences. Consolidated (communitywide) waiting lists for public housing developments or developments supported with project-based vouchers may offer a person only one housing option when his or her name comes up to the top of the list after years of waiting. If the household does not want to live there, it goes back to the bottom of the list. Site-based waiting lists, in contrast, can match the household with the place he or she wants to live.