1. Home
  2. Housing Assistance Programs & Resources
Featured Experts
Erine Gray
Erine GrayFounder and CEO of Aunt Bertha
Rachel Krausman
Rachel KrausmanSenior Director of 211, United Way Worldwide
Katherine Marçal
Katherine MarçalAssistant Professor of Social Work
Written by:

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.

Housing Vouchers

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.

  1. How has the pandemic affected access and availability of housing resources?

    The eviction moratoriums and the federal aid programs from earlier in the year have helped delay some of the worst-case scenarios predicted at the beginning of the pandemic. But with future aid programs still uncertain, there’s a lot of strain being put on housing assistance resources at the state and local level.

    When the pandemic began, food assistance was the primary type of aid we saw users searching for on our platform. However, over the past 90 days, “help pay for housing” has been the top search nationally, and “find housing” is now the fourth most common search. We’re doing our best to connect people with the housing assistance they need, but it’s clear that additional funding & resources for housing aid programs across the country will be necessary. We’ve seen how debilitating a housing crisis can be when the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s. And the effects of this pandemic could far exceed that.

    Our low-income rental market and homeless services systems are really strapped right now. We already had a shortage of affordable housing for low-income Americans, and that has only gotten worse as the market tightens. The eviction moratorium and mortgage forbearance included in the CARES Act have delayed some displacement, but we still see increased demand for lower-cost rental units and extremely high levels of demand for homelessness prevention and homeless services. We will need robust, long-term investment in the low-income housing market to support renters at risk for homelessness and landlords at risk for foreclosure.

    The pandemic has exposed how financially insecure so many in our communities actually are. United Way has seen an increase of 200%–400% in calls to 211, the non-emergency service's helpline. It is a domino effect: People were laid off from work or experiencing health issues, then got behind on their rent, then as employment became more scarce, they were not able to pay rent.

    The eviction moratorium that is in place now is set to expire on December 31. If it is not extended (at the federal or state level), tenants who have been accumulating debt along the way may face eviction in the new year if they do not have the means to pay back due rent.

  2. How do you best maintain a stable housing situation?

    We need to ensure people have access to quality and affordable social services and resources at all times — not just when a pandemic is raging. When other household costs (such as health care or education) are also rising, many families are making extremely tough financial decisions that can lead to housing insecurity or worse. Making sure we have a robust social safety net in place for families to rely on is essential to long-term housing stability.

    The best way to maintain stable housing is to pay less than 30% of your monthly income toward rent or mortgage. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a household that spends more than this to be cost-burdened. Of course, this requires wages to keep pace with housing costs in a particular region, which has not been the case over the past few decades. For example, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Clark County, Nevada, is $1,080. This requires a family to earn at least $43,000 per year, and more than one in four Las Vegans earned less than that in 2019.

    In that context, families have to make difficult tradeoffs. They may forego other expenses to afford housing or live in lower quality homes that do not necessarily meet their space needs. When you only have bad options available to you, you’re going to make a bad choice.

    We should view stable housing as a structural issue rather than an individual issue. The best approach to supporting widespread housing stability would be increased wages for low-income earners, greater investment in affordable housing and increased emergency assistance for those who have lost their jobs due to COVID.

    Having enough money saved up to pay three to six months of rent is always a good idea, but that may not be realistic for many. If possible, an emergency rent fund that you allocate resources to monthly can be a great start. Having a household budget, paying your bills on time and maintaining good communication with your landlord are all important too. Finding housing in an affordable community close to your work location is also key to consistent and reduced commuting and stress.

    If you are a homeowner, it is recommended that you have savings for your mortgage or unexpected repairs, maintain sound budgeting and good credit, have a bank account, access affordable loan products and obtain information on what government housing programs may be eligible for you.

    No matter where you are on the housing spectrum, people can always start by calling 211 in their community to be connected to local financial stability resources.

  3. What advice would you give to someone at the risk of being homeless?

    Don’t feel uncomfortable reaching out for help. Aunt Bertha was founded on the principle that everyone should be able to find the help they need, when they need it, with dignity and ease. No one, rich or poor, is immune to life changes that can cause housing insecurity. Our social safety net is stronger when we help each other out.

    I would advise people to consider all supports available to them, formal and informal. Call your local 2-1-1 line to get information about the governmental and nonprofit resources in your area. The CARES Act has provided some funds for homelessness prevention, which may be used to stabilize families short-term until they can find a new job or secure an alternative living arrangement.

    Whether you are in danger of becoming homeless in several weeks, a few days or sooner, it can be extremely helpful to find out what prevention or emergency assistance programs are in your area. These programs can often support payment of rent, utilities or other bills. Because these resources vary widely from region to region and month to month, one of the best things you can do is dial 211 to access free and confidential referral services. You'll be able to ask about programs that can assist you with housing, access to health care, food and other services.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued an eviction moratorium through December 31, 2020, that protects some tenants and residents who have been financially impacted by the pandemic and unable to pay rent. Visit their FAQ guide to learn if you may be protected by this moratorium and what steps you must take to ensure you can benefit from it.

    We also recommend that you contact your landlord or property manager and maintain clear communication to avoid eviction.

  4. What advice would you give to someone who recently lost stable housing? What steps should they take?

    My advice is for them to start reaching out immediately to the housing resources available in their community so that they can secure aid as soon as possible. Between the public programs and community organizations that already exist, it’s likely they’ll be able to find something that can help. Unfortunately, housing assistance was strained before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated since.

    It depends on where in the process they are. If the loss of stable housing has resulted from the loss of income due to COVID, the individual may be eligible for the eviction moratorium or mortgage forbearance through the CARES Act. If an eviction has been filed, there may be an option to negotiate a payment plan with your landlord.

    If someone has recently become homeless, there are a variety of programs and resources available in their communities. Not to be a broken record here, but calling 211 is a really good place to start. Depending on a client's situation, their network and resources, a call specialist can help identify the best information and referrals to support them. If those resources are scarce or wait-listed, looking to a client's personal network for interim support can help provide time to identify the next best step.

  5. 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?

    It’s hard to address so many issues at once, but my advice is similar to what I noted for housing insecurity itself: don’t hesitate, reach out immediately for assistance. Delay will only lead to the situation worsening, and the sooner you connect with assistance, the sooner you can find relief. Social service providers already coordinate with each other to help individuals and families. It’s a big reason why our platform is so focused on referrals between programs and providers, and you should never feel like you have to address each problem one-by-one.

    Absolutely. When families are cost-burdened by housing, they have to make difficult decisions about which expenses get paid on time. Add a job loss on top of that, and the household’s financial situation can spiral quickly.

    Again, calling 2-1-1 will provide information on local options. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; “food stamps”) and local food pantries may be able to help with groceries, and local Continuum of Care agencies will have homelessness prevention resources. Sometimes utility companies offer payment plans for folks who are falling behind.

    Yes, very often a client who calls 211 to inquire about housing or utility support is also experiencing food insecurity or has other financial needs. The pandemic has certainly put additional stress and hardship on communities nationwide and already vulnerable populations in particular

    One of the benefits of calling 211 includes connecting to trained resource navigators who have information on the wide range of social services in a community. From mental health resources, to distance learning, to social isolation and veterans issues, the most important thing is for people to know that they are not alone and that seeking help is an essential step to meeting these unparalleled times and challenges. We all need to rely on our social, community and safety networks more than ever.

  6. Is there anything you would like to add to help those struggling with housing insecurity?

    I wish there weren’t such a stigma attached to asking for help, but I know that it can be one of the toughest initial barriers to overcome for those in need. I founded the company ten years ago because my own experience navigating the broken safety net for my mom was confusing and intimidating. And now, at Aunt Bertha, we work hard to ensure everyone can at least find and apply for the resources they need, when they need them, regardless of location.

    The threat of losing your home is tremendously stressful, and I would offer my sincerest compassion to families struggling right now. Low and middle-income families are really hurting, and I am afraid of what housing insecurity and homelessness will look like over the next few months. The dual hit of a public health crisis and economic downturn is making it extremely difficult to maintain stable housing at a time when our homes are more important than ever.

    Please know that you are not alone and that United Way and 211 are positioned to support you. Please call 211 and see what is available in your community. We are here to help.


Erine Gray
Erine GrayFounder and CEO of Aunt Bertha
Katherine Marçal
Katherine MarçalAssistant Professor of Social Work
Rachel Krausman
Rachel KrausmanSenior Director of 211, United Way Worldwide

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.

Housing Programs
  • 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.
Housing Resources
  • 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.

Seniors

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.

Housing Programs

Veterans

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.

Housing Programs
Housing Resources
  • 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.

Housing Programs
Housing Resources

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.

Resources

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.


What should I do if I get let go from my job and become at risk of being homeless?This is an icon

If you are worried about missing rent or mortgage payments because of job loss, immediately ask for help. Call your mortgage company and ask for forbearance. While this does not eliminate your payments, it can delay them until you can find new employment. If you rent your home, contact your landlord. Ask for a reduction in rent or deferral for a few months until you can get back on your feet.

Also, ask for help from your local social services office. They will know of the resources in your area to help with housing costs.

Can you take advantage of more than one program? This is an icon

In most cases, yes. Aid is not restricted to one program. If you are struggling, get help for everything you can, including food, utilities and housing.

How do I get emergency housing assistance?This is an icon

Local agencies are your best resource for immediate housing assistance. Use the HUD exchange to find a homeless service provider in your area. They will have the experience, knowledge and access to resources to help you keep your home or find suitable housing.

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


Danielle Kiser is a freelance writer, storyteller and news junkie. She is passionate about informing and inspiring audiences to improve their lives and their communities. As a former TV news producer, she focuses on sharing relevant and factual stories that stimulate personal growth and knowledge. Danielle lives in Michigan with her husband as well as her sidekick, a greyhound named Oreo.


Sources