Fighting Housing Insecurity in the US
Housing insecurity is a growing problem in the United States, and how to best deal with it has been intensely debated. The number of families facing severe housing burdens, meaning they spend more than 50% of their housing income, has increased over the last decade. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, nearly 1 in 4 renters were severely burdened by the cost of rent in 2017, compared to 1 in 5 renters in 2001.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making the problem of housing insecurity much worse. This crisis's economic impact has left millions of people without jobs and the inability to pay monthly housing costs. People already struggling to make ends meet are among the hardest hit.
While Americans struggle to find the resources to keep stable housing, there are resources able to help. This guide was created to help you navigate the resources available, including specific support for veterans, families, seniors and college students.
What Is Housing Insecurity?
There are many different definitions of housing insecurity from nonprofit organizations and government agencies. If you are stressed about making housing payments, you are facing housing insecurity.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is working to create a housing insecurity index to better define the term. Currently, housing insecurity can include affordability, safety, quality, insecurity and loss of housing.
For most economists, researchers and agencies, housing insecurity is currently focused on how much of a person’s income goes to housing.
- Severe: Housing cost more than 50% of household income.
- Moderate: Housing costs between 30–50% of household income.
The Effects of Housing Instability
The stress of housing instability impacts other parts of your well-being, especially when it comes to aging. An Oxford study linked homelessness with an increase in geriatric conditions like memory loss and injuries from falls. The study also found people living without a home aged faster than those in stable housing.
Those facing housing insecurity are also more likely to have food hardship or live in unsafe housing, increasing the risk of health problems. Along with physical well-being, housing instability takes a toll on mental health. The stress of securing the basic needs of food, clean water and shelter can lead to anxiety and depression.
The COVID-19 Impact
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an immediate and lasting economic recession in the U.S. Millions lost their livelihood and became unemployed in March and the following months, leaving them unable to pay household expenses, including rent or mortgage payments.
States and the federal government implemented policies and relief programs to help renters and homeowners get through the summer, including eviction moratoriums. However, many of these measures are temporary and have started to expire.
Finding Housing Assistance
From government agencies to nonprofit organizations, several assistance programs are available to help you find affordable housing. Some offer rental assistance or help with getting an eviction delayed, while others can help you find temporary shelter while you get back on your feet.
Public Housing Programs
There are several public housing options available in the U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees the country’s public housing program, providing rental housing for low-income families. HUD funds local housing agencies that offer apartments to families at rents they can afford.
Numerous factors determine your eligibility for public housing: income, age, disability status and U.S. citizenship or immigration status. You must also have a history of being good tenants. Income limits vary by location, so it’s best to contact your local housing agency and determine what is required to qualify and how to apply.
The main difference between public housing and vouchers is housing choice. With public housing, residents are required to live in specific facilities, but in the housing choice voucher program, it's up to program participants to use their vouchers to find suitable homes. As long as the landlord agrees to take voucher payments, you will pay rent to public housing at a lower rate, and the government will pay the difference to your landlord.
The housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, is ideal if you’re already in a safe, clean home. You can also move from one home to another without losing assistance.
Eligibility requirements and the application process are similar to public housing. This program is designed to help very low-income families. Requirements vary based on location, but those who qualify typically have household incomes of 30% or less of the local area’s median income. Check your local HUD office for qualification details in your area.
Eviction Moratorium and Rental Assistance Programs
In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order halting residential evictions through the end of the year. While this prevents evictions, you are still required to pay rent. If you have unpaid rent, your landlord could evict you when the moratorium expires.
If you are currently using public housing or vouchers and are struggling to pay rent, you can apply for a hardship exemption. This exemption does not waive your rent and will require you to pay it back.
There are additional mortgage and rent relief programs available during the COVID-19 crisis, including some implemented as a result of the coronavirus relief act.
Temporary Housing Assistance Programs
Most families facing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic never imagined they would be in such a situation. Still, current circumstances due to job loss and other financial difficulties caused by the pandemic have forced them out of their home with no plan for where to go. There are still options for safe shelter for these families.
Your local social services agencies can provide specific housing resources in your area. HUD’s Continuum of Care program funds these local services to help quickly re-house individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Because each program is specific to your location, it’s best to contact your local agency directly. You have two options: call 2-1-1 or use the HUD search tool to find a Continuum of Care program near you.
Mortgage Assistance and Deferment Programs
When you fail to pay your mortgage, your bank can begin the foreclosure process and eventually take your home. If you are worried about missing a payment, there are proactive steps you can take to avoid foreclosure.
First, contact your lender. In many cases, they can rework your mortgage payments. You may be able to get caught up by adding missed payments onto the back end of your loan or by splitting up those missed payments and bundling them with your regular payments. In this way, you can slowly get caught up over time without having to pay the entire overdue amount in one payment. You may also apply for a Home Affordable Refinancing Program loan, or HARP. To qualify, you must be current on your payments, so it’s essential to open dialog with your lender before you miss a payment to let them know you’re experiencing a hardship due to the pandemic.
If you have missed a payment, federal government mortgage and foreclosure mediation programs are available through local cities and states. HUD provides a national tool to find the foreclosure counseling service near you.
Challenges to Getting Assistance
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to get the assistance you need. As you make contact with various agencies and apply for help, you may encounter some challenges. There are restrictions in place to narrow down who can get assistance, and making qualification determinations can be a lengthy process.
Some programs have made it easier to apply over the internet during the pandemic, but this can make it more difficult for those who don’t have access to the internet and need to receive help in person. Most libraries are open and have computers available for your use, so you may be able to use the resources available.
Additionally, some essential offices, such as those dealing with housing issues, are open on a limited or by-appointment basis. If you think you may need help, contact your local agency as soon as possible to get an appointment and find out what hours they are open.
If you’re in a rural location or an area that isn’t equipped to handle an influx of residents facing homelessness, you may find yourself trying to get help from an agency that is several miles away or adding your name to the bottom of a long waiting list. Be sure to stay in close contact with agencies that may be able to help, and find a helpful person within those agencies that can keep you updated on your status. Keep notes of all your contacts and conversations with these agencies.
Find Rental Housing Services in Your State
While the federal government oversees and funds several affordable housing and housing assistance programs, most programs are locally run and managed. That means the resources in your city, county or state are likely different from those your family members have access to in another state. Don’t be surprised to find your situation being treated differently than people who live in other areas.
To find rental housing services in your state, refer to this list of state and local resources from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) for COVID-19 emergency rental assistance programs in your area. NLIHC provides an interactive map, a searchable database, an option to download the programs in an Excel spreadsheet and the latest news and updates on rental assistance programs.
Expert Insight on Fighting Housing Insecurity
Fighting housing insecurity takes strength and grit to keep going. MoneyGeek reached out to experts from nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions for their advice on handling housing insecurity and finding housing assistance.
- How has the pandemic affected access and availability of housing resources?
- How do you best maintain a stable housing situation?
- What advice would you give to someone at the risk of being homeless?
- What advice would you give to someone who recently lost stable housing? What steps should they take?
- In many cases, housing insecurity goes hand in hand with other stressful concerns like food insecurity, debt and job loss. How should someone approach tackling multiple insecurities at once?
- Is there anything you would like to add to help those struggling with housing insecurity?
Founder and CEO of Aunt Bertha
Assistant Professor of Social Work
Senior Director of 211, United Way Worldwide
Professor of Law and Director, Fair Housing Legal Support Center at the University of Illinois Chicago
Common Groups in Need of Housing Assistance and Resources
A look at homelessness and housing insecurity data reveals there are standard groups that are most likely to need housing assistance. In many cases, there are programs and resources available specifically for these groups, including low-income families, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.
Low-Income Families and Single Parent
According to a study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, most low-income renters with children spend more than half their income on rent. This rent burden increases their likelihood of more financial hardship, debt and ultimately, eviction. There is housing assistance for single mothers and those living on a low income.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): HUD provides low-income housing tax credits for eligible families. The credits are provided through your state and local agencies. Your local housing agency can also help with Emergency Solutions Grants, Section 8 and family-specific shelters.
- Habitat for Humanity: Habitat for Humanity builds affordable homes for families, using the hard work of the future homeowners in the home's construction. This is known as "sweat equity." There are a limited number of homes available, so the waitlist can be extensive.
- Rural Housing Services: The United States Department of Agriculture offers home loans and payment assistance in rural communities. A community is considered rural if it has a population of less than 35,000.
- CoAbode: This nonprofit offers a home-sharing program, connecting single mothers to share a home and reduce their housing burden.
- Family Promise: A national nonprofit addressing family homelessness, providing prevention resources and emergency shelter.
- Single Mother Grants: This website offers contact details for numerous grants to help low-income families and single mothers with expenses, including housing, utilities, food and education.
- Women’s Shelters: A nationwide directory of shelters specifically designed for women includes emergency shelters, transitional housing, domestic violence shelters and family shelters.
According to the Homelessness Research Institute, older people make up 23% of the shelter population in the United States, and this rate is expected to grow. This group also is highest at risk for medical issues related to homelessness, including COVID-19. Because this population has unique demands, there are specific programs for seniors.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): HUD provides multiple programs for low-income seniors. It offers low-income housing tax credit, Section 8 vouchers and a specific program for the elderly called Section 202. Your local housing agency will assist you in finding the available services for you.
- HUD FHA Reverse Mortgage for Seniors (HECM): If you have equity in your home but need money to help pay expenses, you can apply for a reverse mortgage.
Although the exact number is unknown, HUD estimates that more than 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Sadly, this number has grown because of a shortage of affordable housing and a livable income. While many veterans experiencing homelessness are single men, 2% of veterans experiencing homelessness were part of a family. There are veterans housing assistance programs and services available.
- HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing: HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs work together to provide veterans with these housing vouchers.
- Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF): For veterans who have a very low income, this program helps veterans prevent the immediate loss of their home or find more suitable housing.
- VA Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program: These locally-managed grants provide transitional housing, including short-stay bridge housing, for veterans who are homeless.
- Help for Veterans Who Are Homeless Helpline: Call 1-877-424-3838 and receive 24/7 access to the VA’s services for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless.
- Veterans.gov: This site provides employment opportunity leads for veterans, including job postings, local career centers and online self-assessments.
- Community Resource and Referral Centers: Find a location near you that provides permanent housing, mental health services, health care, career development and access to VA and non-VA benefits.
- A Guide to Housing Benefits for Veterans: MoneyGeek's housing resource guide for veterans and service members provides helpful information such as how to qualify for VA home loans, rental and housing assistance and housing grants.
Youth and College Students
According to Covenant House, more than 3.5 million young adults experience a form of homelessness during the course of a year, equating to 1 out of 10 young adults. This demographic requires special care, as many youths are faced with homelessness have survived abuse, human trafficking and severed family relationships. It’s estimated that LGBTQ youth are at more than double the risk for homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth.
- Covenant House: There are covenant houses in 31 cities to care for and protect youth who are homeless.
- Scholarships for Students Who Experience Homelessness: This is a list of available scholarships to help youth who are homeless go to college.
- Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP): HUD designed this program to reduce homelessness in the youth population. To apply, you should contact your local housing agency.
- LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative: This program works to ensure young people are not left without a home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
- The National Runaway Safeline: This organization offers services and a confidential 24/7 hotline for young people who are at risk of homelessness.
- The Resource Guide for Students Who Are Homeless or Have a Low Income: This resource guide helps students who are homeless or have a low income navigate college financially. You'll find information on scholarships, federal aid, local shelters and public housing opportunities, food assistance programs and medical resources.
- Cheap Apartments for College Students – Sublet.com: You can search for apartments by state, region and city for furnished and unfurnished rentals.
- American Campus: American Campus Communities operates this list of student apartments, searchable by college location, state or community.
Individuals Who Experience Domestic Violence
If you are experiencing domestic violence or feel unsafe at home, there are multiple resources and programs available to help you find safe and secure housing. On a single night in 2019, homeless services providers worked to have more than 48,000 beds set aside for domestic violence survivors, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Housing Programs and Resources
- Department of Justice Funded Coalitions: A state-by-state list of federally funded coalitions that provide housing assistance and other survivor services.
- Women’s Shelters: A nationwide directory of shelters specifically designed for women includes emergency shelters, transitional housing, domestic violence shelters and family shelters.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: You can call or on-line chat with experts to help you find a safe place to stay. The number to call is 1-800-799-2929.
Individuals With Disabilities
By law, individuals with disabilities must be given a choice in the support services they receive, including housing. This means that if you have a disability and qualify for housing assistance, you must be given a choice between adapting your home to meet your challenges or finding a different living situation that better serves your needs.
Housing Programs and Resources
- A Guide to Homeownership Programs for People with Disabilities: This MoneyGeek guide has valuable information on your rights as a person with disabilities and financial assistance for home purchases, such as loans and Section 8 housing voucher programs.
- HUD's Office of Multifamily Housing: Federal funding provides rental housing and supportive services for adults with disabilities.
- Non-Elderly Disabled Voucher: This program helps people get into housing development traditionally set aside for seniors.
- Independent Living Centers: These state and local centers can help the disabled develop skills to live with a disability.
- USA.Gov: Explore all the programs funded by the federal government to assist with individuals with disabilities.
- HUD Fair Housing: Housing discrimination based on disability is illegal. Know your rights from the Fair Housing Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Individuals With Substance Use or Mental Disorders
Stable housing is essential for those struggling with substance use or a mental disorder. However, the stress of paying for housing can be a trigger for relapse.
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services: Before finding stable housing, it’s best to seek treatment. Call 1-800-662-4357 to find a local treatment center.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Hotline: This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): HUD provides low-income housing tax credits for eligible families. The credits are provided through your state and local agencies. Your local housing agency can also help with Emergency Solutions Grants, Section 8 and substance use-specific shelters.
FAQ About Housing Assistance
People who never imagined having to ask for help to keep a roof over their heads may not know where to turn when asking for help. These frequently asked questions illustrate the situation many Americans affected by the pandemic now find themselves in. Getting the answers to these questions is a good place to start if you need housing assistance right away.
Additional Resources for Housing Assistance
While HUD is a great place to start your search for housing assistance, there are numerous resources available. These include shelters, local government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness: While this organization does not provide direct services, it will connect you with groups who do. It also offers a step by step guide for what to do if you are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
- HUD Resource Locator: Most resources are local. Use this site to find the services near you.
- HUD Exchange's Homelessness Assistance Programs: This interactive map will help you find shelters, health care, housing and other services near your current home.
- Homeless Shelter Directory: If you require immediate shelter, this directory will find the closest location to you.
- Housing Assistance Council: This national nonprofit focuses on providing resources and building homes for low-income rural Americans.
- National Coalition for the Homeless: This site provides a one-stop search for resources for those on the brink of homelessness.
- Rent Assistance: This resource website provides information on programs in your area from government agencies, nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups.
- Need Help Paying Bills: This website links to multiple agencies that help with rent, mortgages and more.
- Making Home Affordable: If you are a struggling homeowner, this government website will connect you to available resources, including a housing counselor, to help your specific situation.
- Career One Stop: The Department of Labor offers resources for the unemployed to get benefits, find a new job and pay for housing.
- National Low Income Housing Coalition: This is a one-stop site to find state and city-funded rental housing programs.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Find a HUD-approved housing counseling agency near you.
- United Way: With thousands of locations worldwide, local United Ways provide a wide range of services, including housing and utility assistance. United Way also runs the national 2-1-1 phone line to help people connect to their region's social services.
About the Author
- Aspen Institute. "The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis: an Estimated 30-40 Million People in America Are at Risk." Accessed October 20, 2020.
- Brookings. "Housing hardships reach unprecedented heights during the COVID-19 pandemic." Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Housing Affordability and Insecurity Before and During the Pandemic." Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing and Employment Hardships." Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Homelessness Research Institute. "Population At Risk: Homelessness and the COVID-19 Crisis." Accessed October 20, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress." Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Voices of Youth Count. "Missed Opportunities: LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in America." Accessed October 29, 2020.