Public Housing: Some Frequently Asked Questions
This information applies to you only if you live in HUD-subsidized public housing. Examples in Maine are Cape Hart in Bangor, Kennedy Park in Portland, and Hillview in Lewiston.
If you get another type of rent subsidy, such as USDA Rural Development (formerly FmHA), these rules will not apply. If you have a "section 8 voucher," Section 8 Made Simple from the Technical Assistance Collaborative is a good resource. (This is written for people with disabilities but good, easy-to-read information.) If you get another kind of HUD subsidy, some of these rules may apply. Call Pine Tree Legal.
How do I apply for public housing?
To get a list of housing authorities and other agencies that oversee subsidized housing in your area, call the Maine State Housing Authority: 1-800-452-4668, TTY 1-800-452-4603. You can also view listings of subsidized housing at the Maine State Housing Authority website. Then contact the local agencies where you want to live. You will have to fill out some paperwork. If the waiting list is closed, you may have to wait to apply. If you have a disability that would make the normal application procedures difficult, the public housing provider has a duty to provide reasonable alternative means to add you to the wait list.
How long will I have to wait?
It depends. Some housing authorities (PHA's) have very long waiting lists. If you can be flexible about where you live, it's a good idea to apply several places. This will give you a better chance to get housing sooner. If you move while you're waiting, be sure you let the PHA know your new address and phone number. They must also provide reasonable avenues for somebody with disabilities to apply to get on the waitlist.
The PHA may use a system of "preferences"--giving some people a higher place on the waiting list. For example, it might give preference to victims of domestic violence or to families with a disabled person. If the PHA uses preferences, they must tell you how the system works. They must give you a chance to show that you fit into a preferred group.
After the PHA has decided that you are eligible to get housing, they must give you their best estimate of when you will be able to move in. Beware that these estimates are hard to make and could be pretty far off.
If only one family member is ineligible, the PHA might consider whether simply excluding that one member may allow the other members of the family into housing.
What can I do if my application is denied?
The Housing Authority (PHA) must have a written policy about how it screens and prioritizes applicants. If you ask for a copy, they must give you one.
The policy will probably include criteria such as:
- Have you paid your rent in the past?
- Were you a good tenant in the past?
- Do you have a history of dangerous criminal activity?
If you have been denied for reasons such as these, you can get an "informal hearing," for review of the denial. The PHA must let you know ahead of time what information they looked at when they denied you. The person holding the hearing must be fair and impartial. (He did not take part in the first decision to deny you. Also, he has an open mind about your issues.)
At the hearing you give your side of the story. Explain why you think the information the PHA got was not true, or not reliable. Explain why you think the PHA decision was unfair or illegal. If the information about your past is true but you have made changes, correcting past problems, explain the changes.
- You were evicted from an apartment a year ago because your boyfriend drank too much. He beat you up frequently, and caused a lot of damage. Since then, you broke up with him and he has left the state. You have had no incidences of a bad rental history since that time. Explain that you didn't cause the problems before and that the person who did is gone. Bring a favorable recommendation from your current landlord, if you can.
- You have been denied because you owe $500 to another housing authority (or former section 8 landlord) for unpaid rent and damages. You can't afford to pay this debt. The PHA won't admit you until this debt is paid. If you don't owe this debt, explain why and bring any evidence. If you owe the debt but can't pay it, some PHA's will accept a payment arrangement. Before agreeing to this, be sure you can afford to pay both your rent and the monthly debt payment. If the claimed debt is more than six years old, contact Pine Tree Legal. You may not have to pay the debt.
- You were evicted for non-payment of rent four years ago when you were broke because of a serious drug habit. You went to a rehab unit 6 months later and successfully completed a rehab program 2 years ago. You have not used drugs at all since then. Ask your counselor to come to the hearing to explain your successful rehabilitation. If that's not possible, ask him to send a written report.
Note: All PHA's must deny admission to anyone who has been evicted from federally assisted housing for drug-related criminal activity within the past 3 years. However, the PHA may consider:
- Successful rehabilitation in an approved program, or
- Other significant change (such as offender is in jail)
PHA's must deny anyone who has ever been convicted for producing methamphetamine in federally subsidized housing.
How much rent will I have to pay?
Your rent is calculated in one of two ways:
- A percentage of your income, or
- A "flat rental" amount
You can chose which method is used. For most people, the first method will mean less rent. First, certain amounts are disregarded. For example, you get an income deduction for each child and for necessary child care. Each elderly or disabled person gets an income deduction, plus deductions for large medical expenses. After these disregards are applied, your monthly rent should be 30% of your countable income. If you have questions, ask how the calculation was done. If your rent is more than 30% of your income, you should question this and find out why. If you opt for "flat rent," the amount will be based on the local fair market rent
If you pay your own utilities, your total expense of rent plus utilities should be adjusted by a "utility allowance." This can get a little complicated. Ask questions. If you still don't understand and have difficulty meeting your rent plus utilities, contact Pine Tree Legal.
Don't I get some kind of break on my rent if I get a job or start earning more money while I'm living in public housing?
Yes. If you qualify, your increased earnings should not be counted in figuring your rent for the first 12 months after you go to work. For the second 12 months, only half of your earnings will be counted. This "earnings disregard" applies to anyone in your household who is 18 or older. Here's how you qualify for the disregard:
- You were "previously unemployed" for at least 12 months before you went to work. (If you were earning small amounts of money during that 12 months--up to 500 hours x state minimum wage--you can still qualify as "previously unemployed.") or
- Your household received welfare during the last 6 months, and you began working or increased your earnings. ("Welfare" can include a one-time payment or something like TANF-related transportation assistance.) or
- Your income increased while you were participating in a self-sufficiency or job- training program (like ASPIRE, an English-as-second-language course, substance abuse rehab, or sheltered workshop) or
- You are disabled and went to work or started earning more money.
Once you start getting this disregard, you have a 4-year window period to use it up.
Example: If you lose your job after getting 10 months of the disregard, you have only 38 months left to use the rest of the disregard (by qualifying again within the next 38 months).
If you were already working when you moved into public housing, this income will still count. Only the increase in earnings will be disregarded. If you were getting TANF before you went to work, only your earnings in excess of the TANF amount would be disregarded. The purpose is not to penalize you for the increase in income.
The Housing Authority (PHA) can chose to have an "individual savings account" policy. If your PHA has this, it can require you to put your rental savings during this 2-year period in a special savings account. You can withdraw money from the account only for specific reasons, such as:
- buying a home,
- paying educational costs, or
- moving from public housing
If you move out of public housing, the PHA must pay you all the money in the account, minus any money you owe to the PHA.
What if my income goes up or down during the lease period?
The Housing Authority (PHA) must have a clear policy about when you must report an increase in income. This should be stated in your lease. If not, ask for a copy of the PHA's written policy. Be sure you understand this policy. You could be evicted for not reporting an increase in income. If you lose income during the lease period, the PHA must do a new rent calculation "within a reasonable time." Again, your lease, or a PHA written policy, should state exactly what that time period is.
If you lose TANF income because of fraud or a work-related sanction, you do not get a rent decrease. However, you can still take advantage of the "earnings disregard" if you go to work and qualify for the disregard.
If you have opted to pay a "flat rent" and you run into a "financial hardship," the PHA should let you switch to a lower percentage-of-income rental amount. A "financial hardship" could be something like a lay off or a medical crisis.
Can the Housing Authority (PHA) inspect my apartment without warning me first?
No, except in an emergency. Otherwise, the PHA should give you "reasonable notice." Normally, giving you a written notice at least two days before the inspection is "reasonable notice." The notice should also give the reason for the inspection. A good reason for inspecting can be:
- To do routine inspection or maintenance
- To do repairs or improvements
- To show the unit to someone who may be renting after you
The inspection must be done at a reasonable hour, not late at night or early in the morning. If the PHA comes into your house when no one is home, they must leave you a written notice, including the date, time, and reason for their visit.
May I have a pet while I'm living in public housing?
Yes. However, the Housing Authority (PHA) may put "reasonable requirements" on having a pet. For example, the PHA may:
- Require a small non-refundable fee, a larger refundable deposit (but cannot charge a fee for a service animal), or both
- Limit the number of animals in a unit, based on size
- Ban individual animals, based on factors such as size or weight
- Require pet registration
- Require that pets be spayed or neutered
As to whether the PHA can ban a certain breed of animal, the law is unclear. If you want to challenge this type of rule, talk to Pine Tree Legal.
Animals that assist, support or provide service to persons with disabilities are not pets. The PHA may not place any conditions on ownership of such animals that are "necessary as a reasonable accommodation" to the disabled tenant.
Can I have a dog?
Some housing authorities have a rule saying you can't have any kind of dog. We believe that this may be a violation of federal law. All dogs are not dangerous. If you are not allowed to have a small or medium-sized dog that is not a danger or nuisance to others, contact Pine Tree Legal.
Can my landlord forbid me from owning a firearm?
No. If you are legally allowed to own a gun, your landlord cannot prevent you from owning a gun. Your landlord cannot make you agree to any restrictions on your use or ownership in your apartment. Your landlord can make rules for guns and ammunition in the common areas. However, these rules should not interfere with your ability to have a gun or ammunition in your apartment.
You must store your gun and ammunition safely.
If your landlord brings you to court to prevent you from owning a gun, you may be able to recover damages and attorney’s fees.
DHHS took my kids. Now the housing authority is threatening to evict me or move me to a smaller unit. What can I do?
Any children who are "temporarily absent" because they are in foster care must be counted as part of your family. So, the PHA cannot force you to move to a smaller unit.
In some cases, your child may have to stay in foster care after the "C-2 court hearing." This is still a temporary placement that the court must review every 6 months. During this time, DHHS must try to help you with a reunification plan. You may have to give the PHA written statements from the court or DHHS about the status of your case. Contact Pine Tree Legal if the PHA is threatening to move you.
Can I have overnight guests?
Yes. However, the PHA can put limits on this right. When it comes to specific rules, there are some gray areas. HUD requires that tenants have "the right to exclusive use and occupancy of the lease unit,...including reasonable accommodation of their guests." Many courts in the country have read this to mean that PHA's cannot require you to register your guests.
It is clear that you cannot count as a "guest" someone who is really living with you. If the "guest" has no other living address and stays with you for an extended period of time, then she is not a guest; she lives with you. This is not allowed, unless you have this person added to your lease as a member of the household.
There are many in-between situations. The safest approach is to read your lease and follow those rules. If you have questions about whether your lease term is too strict (violating the federal rule stated above), contact Pine Tree Legal before you decide to ignore the lease. You could be evicted for violating it.
Some factors to consier when deciding if a person is considred a guest:
- whether the person has another home
- how often and for how long the person stays with you
- whether the person uses your addess for situations such as (but not limited to): receiving mail or for employment purposes, and
- the reasons why the person spends time at your home
Do I have any say about how the Housing Authority (PHA) runs my housing complex?
Yes. You can have a say. Federal HUD rules encourage residents to take part in decision-making. For example, you have the right to elect a tenants council. PHA's must give you notice and the chance to comment on proposed changes to your lease form and other important rules. PHA's must give residents the chance to serve on their governing board. Larger PHA's must have at least one tenant board member. The PHA must consult with any tenant organizations before appointing a hearing officer, who hears tenant grievances.
Does the PHA have the right to show my file to anyone they want to, or give out information about me from my file?
No. However, they can give out information if a court or other "lawful authority" requires them to. (There are other narrow exceptions, such as routine government reports and audits.) When you apply, you will probably be asked to sign some release of information forms. Before you sign, be sure you understand whom they will be getting information from and whom, if anyone, they can give it to, under the release agreement.
Can the PHA get my criminal records?
PHA's must screen applicants for "drug-related criminal activity," "alcohol abuse," and "lifetime registration under a State sex offender registration program." However, before a PHA can deny you because of a criminal record, the PHA must give you copies of the records and a chance to dispute the "accuracy and relevance" of the records. The PHA cannot to charge you for the cost of the criminal records check.
Drug-related criminal activity and registration as a sex offender will make applicants ineligible for public housing. However, for other past offenses, PHA's are allowed to set their own policies as to how criminal history affects eligibility. Applicants should not be denied admission if their previous criminal activity would not affect their tenancy. Only the conduct of the member household may be considered, not the criminal records of guests or non-household members.
I already live in public housing. Can the PHA make me be fingerprinted in order to get a new lease for another year (recertification)?
No. This criminal history screening is only allowed for people who are applying for public housing (see above). But you can be evicted for criminal activity. If you violate this rule, the PHA can get your criminal records to prove the violation. They must give you copies of these records before using them against you, and must give you the chance to respond. (See more below about evictions.)
Can the PHA get my drug treatment records when I apply for public housing?
First the PHA must have a policy about which applicants must sign consent forms to get this information. They can require:
- all applicants or
- just those applicants with a history of violent or drug-related activity
to consent to release of this information.
PHA's may make requests to obtain information from treatment centers but they must first obtain your written consent. This consent request allows treatment facilities to tell PHAs only whether the facility has reasonable cause to believe that the applicant or household member is currently engaged in drug use. If you sign the consent forms, then they can get this information from your drug abuse treatment program. After the PHA admits you, or denies you, they cannot use your consent form to get any more information about you. Also, the PHA must keep your records confidential and must destroy them after you have been admitted or denied.
What can I do if I disagree with something the Housing Authority (PHA) does, like adding on extra charges, or refusing to replace a broken window?
If you can't resolve the problem, you have the right to go through a two-step grievance process. PHAs are required to give all tenants a copy of the current grievance procedure if they had not been given a copy earlier. Or it must be incorporated in the lease, either in whole or by reference. PHAs may include time limits for grievances. The resident must present the PHA, either orally or in writing, with their grievance. Always keep a record showing you submitted the grievance, either through witness, receipt, or certified mail. Your complaint should include a clear and concise statement of your grievance, with specific facts regarding the PHA's action or inaction. Cite any relevant lease provision or regulation. The statement should include what you are asking the PHA to do to remedy the situation.
Step One: "Informal settlement" conference. You meet with someone from the PHA, who will discuss the problem with you, then prepare a written summary of the meeting. This summary must state the issues, what the PHA has decided and why. It must also tell you how to file for a more formal hearing (Step Two) if you disagree with the decision.
Step Two: Hearing. At this step, you again present your side of the issue. Here are the basic hearing rules:
- You can bring papers and witnesses, to help support your case.
- You can have a legal advisor.
- The hearing officer or panel must be "impartial," a person who is open-minded and has not made any decisions about your issue in the past.
- The PHA must allow you to see any information they are relying on before the hearing. You also have the right to make copies of these papers; the PHA may charge you a reasonable copying fee. They must give you a fair chance to disprove or disagree with this information.
- You may record the hearing.
- The hearing officer or panel must give a written decision, giving reasons, based only upon the facts presented at the hearing.
What will happen if I try to fight an eviction?
This depends on the reason for the eviction. In all cases, you cannot be evicted unless a court rules that the eviction is legal. See our handbook Right of Tenants in Maine to find out about the court process. In most cases, you also have a right to the PHA two-step grievance process (see above). This grievance process, if you ask for it, will happen before the court hearing. Usually, we advise you to go through the grievance. This will give you more chances to work something out.
Important Note: If your PHA gets permission from the federal HUD office, they can deny you a grievance if you are being evicted for:
- Criminal activity that affects your neighbors or PHA workers, or
- Violent or drug-related activity, or
- A felony conviction
You still have the right to a court hearing and cannot be evicted until a court rules that it is legal.
If you get a notice saying that you are being evicted, call Pine Tree Legal right away!
July 2013, partially updated July 2016
PTLA # 649