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The goal of Cityscape is to bring high-quality original research on housing and community development issues to scholars, government officials, and practitioners. Cityscape is open to all relevant disciplines, including architecture, consumer research, demography, economics, engineering, ethnography, finance, geography, law, planning, political science, public policy, regional science, sociology, statistics, and urban studies.

Cityscape is published three times a year by the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • Moving to Opportunity
  • Volume 14 Number 2
  • Managing Editor: Mark D. Shroder
  • Associate Editor: Michelle P. Matuga

The Housing Needs of Rental Assistance Applicants

Josh Leopold, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness


Federal rental assistance programs are not funded adequately to serve all, or even most, eligible households. As a result, millions of households are on Public Housing Authority (PHA) waiting lists to receive a Housing Choice Voucher or a unit in a public housing development. Applicants typically wait years before being offered assistance, and many PHAs have closed their waiting lists to new applicants. Although this problem is longstanding and widely acknowledged, very little is known about the characteristics and experiences of households on waiting lists for rental assistance. A 2009 survey of nearly 1,000 nonelderly, nondisabled rental assistance applicants, selected from a nationwide sample of 25 PHAs, provides new information on these households. The survey shows that households that apply for and receive housing assistance differ significantly from households that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers as having worst case housing needs (WCN). Specifically, most rental assistance applicants did not spend more than one-half of their income on housing, primarily because they reduced their housing costs by living with family or friends or by receiving some form of government subsidy. Applicants frequently reported other housing-related problems not included in the WCN measure, such as homelessness, overcrowding, and certain housing quality problems. In addition, many applicants appear to apply for rental assistance to form their own households rather than continue living with family or friends. These findings have implications for our understanding of housing needs and the function of rental assistance programs in addressing those needs.

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