Waiting Time for Public Housing Units and Vouchers


  • Miami, Florida
  • Seattle, Washington

Focus Area

  • Housing

“To better address the needs of low-income families and improve the accessibility of public housing assistance, we need to know more about the effects of waiting time on low-income families and other vulnerable groups.”

The Issue

Across the United States, social service providers work tirelessly to fulfill good, worthy missions. But while they aspire to serve everyone who walks in their doors, their resources are limited. 

Funding and staffing capacity ultimately determine who they are able to serve. And often, providers operate on a first-come, first-served basis, which leads to long waiting lists of eligible and interested clients. 

Like the waiting lists that develop for nursing homes, organ donations, and other medical procedures, public housing is no different. For those in need of public housing units or government housing vouchers, there are numerous organizations available to help. But they only have so much they can give. 

The U.S. government offers a number of programs that help low-income families afford safe, decent housing. In 2016, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reported that 2.2 million low-income families used Housing Choice Vouchers—federal rental subsidies paid directly to landlords—to help make their rent. Similarly, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1.2 million households live in public housing units. 

While providing housing assistance to 3.4 million families is significant, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 7.5 million families were living in poverty in 2018. Meaning well over 4 million families don’t have access to the help they need.

And the waiting lists for public housing? They’re long. And many are closed. The NLIHC reports that after joining a waiting list, people in search of public housing assistance often wait for a number of years before receiving help. The median waiting time for public housing is 1.5 years. And a quarter of open lists have a waiting time of at least 7 years. 

Frequently, the demand for housing vouchers is so high that organizations close their waiting lists entirely. In 2016, more than half of the waiting lists for public housing vouchers were closed, meaning new applications were not accepted. 

Once someone joins a waiting list for public housing, there are many challenges to maintaining the eligibility to receive help when it becomes available. Often, families will enter numerous waiting lists at once to increase their chances of getting assistance. But each waitlist has its own unique set of requirements. And after a while, these become difficult to keep track of. For example, many waiting lists require participants to periodically confirm their continued interest in public housing services. If the organization doesn’t hear back from someone on the waitlist by a certain deadline, their names are removed from the list. 

This is problematic for low-income families, because a lot can happen while they’re on the waiting list, especially if the waiting time spans across years. Frequent moves and limited access to reliable means of communication make keeping track of deadlines and requirements difficult. And most of the people on public housing waiting lists are seniors, people with disabilities, or families with children, each facing their own unique challenges and circumstances. 

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, over 10.4 million people participate in federal rental assistance programs. And so many more are in need. But today, we know very little about the timing of housing assistance and its effects on the lives and outcomes of those in poverty. 

To better address the needs of low-income families and improve the accessibility of housing assistance, we need to know more about the effects of waiting time on low-income families and other vulnerable groups. Understanding the impact of housing assistance and its timing may help providers more effectively prioritize and change the lives of those who need it most.  

Research Question

How does the waiting time for public housing units and vouchers impact the outcomes of those who need them most?

Intended Outcomes

  • Those who wait for long periods of time before they can access public housing units and vouchers will experience greater housing instability than those with shorter waiting times.
  • Individuals with longer waiting times will also demonstrate worse financial health—higher levels of debt and lower levels of savings—than those with shorter waits.

Research Study Design

The Waiting Time study is a randomized, retrospective natural experiment. Because the demand for public housing units and vouchers exceeds the supply available, providers often use waiting lists to determine who will receive housing assistance as it becomes available. These waiting lists are effectively a lottery—exactly when an individual decides to enter a waiting list for public housing and the timing housing assistance becomes available are essentially random. 

To investigate the impact of various waiting times on the lives of those in need of public housing, LEO researchers use past datasets to compare the financial health and housing stability of individuals who occupy different positions on public housing waitlists.  

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