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Housing For Seniors on Social Security

By Koob Moua December 02, 2020 Aging

You’ve steered into retirement lane, in which you’re either approaching the finish line or you’ve already crossed it. The comments from everyone sound all too familiar – “How lucky of you to be done working”, “Oh the vacations you must be planning to take outside the country”, or “I’m so envious of all that free time you’ll have”. 

As you gaze towards or drive past the finish line of retirement, those familiar whispers may in fact sound unfamiliar. You’re extending your retirement date – taking a part-time job in order to afford a roof over your head. That vacation was never part of the plan because your savings are limited as they are. You spend the majority of your free time trying to figure out how to continue paying for rent or how to afford the mortgage on your limited income. 

Whether you’ve planned perfectly for your retirement or pinched pennies, you’re not alone if you feel like your savings and current income is inadequate to afford housing. The truth is that the cost of housing eats a significant portion of older adults’ income. Fortunately, there are helpful initiatives that exist to assist older adults on a limited income to comfortably afford housing without breaking their banks – subsidized housing. As many low-income older adults rely on subsidized housing, long waiting lists are common so you have to act fast. 

Income Sources for Older Adults

It’s hard to tell where you stand when comparing yourself to others when it comes to income. You have to respect the privacy of others and you don’t feel comfortable disclosing your personal financial and housing situation. How can you know if you’re ahead, behind, or just right in the middle? Let’s take a look at some data from research studies that can give you better insight and perspective. 

How are you compared to the general population of older adults that reside in subsidized housing? A study showed: 

  • Nearly one-third of residents in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) properties for seniors are age 80 or older
  • Nearly 20 percent of new residents are age 80 and older 
  • 66 percent reported that they receive food stamps
  • Approximately 25 percent rated their health as fair or poor
  • 36 percent were currently receiving assistance with housekeeping or laundry at the time of interview 
  • 23 percent received assistance with grocery shopping 
  • 62 percent were currently in subsidized housing and 38 percent were on waiting lists 
  • The average age for residents was 69 years
  • Average monthly income for residents was $938

A research study looked at income levels for low-income older adults. If you find yourself counting on your social security income to meet your housing needs, you’re not alone. Social Security accounts for a crucial source of income for low-income older adults. 

  • In 2013, it accounted for 72 percent of the family income received by adults ages 65 and older with family incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL). 
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a government transfer program for low-income older adults and people with disabilities, accounted for another nine percent of their income. 
  • Employer sponsored pensions, earning, or investments accounted very little for low-income older adults. For full-time working older adults that earned less than $25,000 annually, only 33% were able to contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. 
  • Older adults with incomes below 125 percent of PFL spent 74% of their income on housing. 
  • 50 percent of low-income older adults that own their homes free and clear spent 62 percent of their income on housing
  • 12 percent of low-income older adults with mortgages spent an outrageous 131 percent of their income on housing. 

As a standard, common budgeting advice suggests that a family or individual should spend no more than 25 to 30 percent of gross income on rent. In addition to rent, other financial costs also influence a person’s decision to find subsidized housing. High housing costs force families and individuals to refrain spending money on essentials that are life saving and arguably beneficial to a person’s longevity – food, health care, and skipping a housing payment. Fortunately, useful resources for older adults living on social security assist to supplement these costs so you don’t have to sacrifice essential things that contribute to your health and ability to save money. 

Skipping rent is a downward spiral for tenants – making it even more difficult to find future housing. If everyone had it their way, they would always choose to pay rent on time. To avoid missing a housing payment and a bad history record as a tenant, it’s helpful to understand what affordable housing options are available to support low-income older adults. Because older adults are already on a limited income, affordable housing generally demands no more than 25 to 30 percent of a family or individual’s monthly adjusted income. Let’s see what these are.  

Affordable Housing Options

Housing Vouchers

Housing vouchers, previously known as ‘Section 8’, is a federal governmental program aimed at assisting very low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities to obtain decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. 

Two big important names to remember for this program: 

  • Public housing agencies (PHAs): They are the team that administers the housing voucher for eligible participants. By law, PHAs are required to provide 75% of their housing vouchers to applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30% of the area median income. 
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): These guys provide federal funds to PHAs. 

Who is eligible to receive housing vouchers? After proving to have U.S. citizenship or appropriate immigration status, PHAs determine your eligibility by looking at your total annual gross income family size. Let’s tour around some important facts to bear in mind: 

  • Family income must not exceed 50% of the median income for the country or immediate metropolitan area that the family desires to live. 
  • HUD determines the median income levels and varies by location. Once you’ve reached out to the PHA serving your immediate area, they will provide you with the income limits for your area and family size. 
  • When applying, have these documents ready to go – family income, assets, and family members that will live in the household. Make sure you’re not being deceptive, as PHAs will verify this information with local agencies, your employer, and bank. Because there are long wait lists for this program, the more accurate information you can provide, the higher likelihood you’ll be able to be approved. 
  • The information provided to PHAs will ultimately determine your eligibility and the amount of housing assistance payment you’ll qualify for relative to your profile. 
  • As soon as the PHA considers you eligible, you will be placed on either a waiting list or assisted immediately. If on a waiting list, the PHA will contact you immediately and issue you a housing voucher once it’s your turn. 

What happens after you receive a housing voucher? You’ll be advised and educated by the PHA regarding options for housing. Secondly, they will help steer you in the correct direction to secure the best housing option for you and your family’s specific situation. 

  • Looking for a home: A person or family that has been issued a housing voucher has the final say in the type of housing they choose to live in. PHAs heavily encourage participants to consider an array of several housing choices (i.e., single family homes, townhouses, and apartments) and advise on unit sizes they are eligible for based on family size and composition. Generally, the two rules of thumb for housing choice include meeting the requirements of the PHA’s program (i.e., meeting minimum health and safety standards) and the owner of the home agrees to rent under the PHA program (this includes the participant’s current residence). 
  • Signing the Lease: Once a person or family has been approved by the PHA for a housing unit, the next step is signing the lease. Signing the lease involves the family and the landlord signing the lease, along with the landlord and the PHA signing a housing assistance contract that aligns with the duration of the lease.
  • How rent is determined: Housing assistance received from PHA to participants is calculated by the amount that is generally needed to rent a moderately-priced unit in the local housing market. Participants have the freedom to choose a unit that is priced either above or below the price calculated by the PHA. Rent paid by participants is 30% of their adjusted gross income. If choosing a unit above the calculated price by PHA, participants need to pay the additional difference. On the side of good news, by law, if a family moves into a unit above the calculated price, participants will not be asked to pay more than 40% of their adjusted monthly income for rent. 

When it’s all set and done, knowing the responsibilities of all parties involved comes in handy. The three parties include the tenant, the landlord, and the HUD – each having specific obligations and responsibilities under the signed lease. 

  • Tenant’s Obligations: Once the housing unit has been selected with the approval from the PHA, the person or the family signs a lease with the landlord for at least one year. Some tenants may be required to pay a security deposit to the landlord. Once the first year of the lease is up, the landlord has the freedom to initiate a new lease or continue renting to the person or family on a month-to-month basis. 
  • Landlord’s Obligations: The landlords are expected to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing to a tenant under reasonable and affordable rent prices. The dwelling unit of the landlord goes under inspection by the PHA and must pass the program’s housing quality standards and be maintained. Services that were listed within the lease must be adhered to and provided to the tenant as stated by the lease agreement and the contract signed with the PHA. 
  • HUD’s Role: HUD provides funds to allow PHAs to make housing assistance payments on behalf of the families receiving housing vouchers. HUD also pays the PHA a fee for the costs of administering the program. When additional funds become available to assist new families, HUD invites PHAs to submit applications for funds for additional housing vouchers. Applications are then reviewed and funds awarded to the selected PHAs on a competitive basis. HUD monitors PHA administration of the program to ensure program rules are properly followed.

Multifamily Subsidized Houses

Known formally as Section 202 program, HUD provides funds for private corporations or owners to build affordable housing specifically for very low-income older adults. Very similar to housing vouchers, HUD gives these private corporations or owners subsidies to help make rent affordable. 

Section 202 stands out as a program that supplies affordable housing to low-income adults to live independently with perks – accessible environment, supportive cleaning, assistance with cooking, congregate meals and transportation. Participants in this program pay no more than 30% of their net income. 

Who is eligible to apply?

  • Occupancy in Section 202 housing is open to any very low-income household composed of at least one person who is at least 62 years old at the time of initial occupancy.
  • Anyone living in the United States, regardless of citizenship. No documentation is required or will be asked of. 
  • Makes less than 50% of the Area Median Income within the immediate area. 
  • Having a clean housing history record. At times, a rental history may be asked of applicants. If applicants have a history of eviction, termination from an assistance housing program, or outstanding rent payment, it may likely lower your chances of being eligible. 

Getting started

  • Visit Affordable Housing Online
  • Type in your city, state, or zip code in the search bar on the main page
  • Contact the representatives on listings that you’re interested in. Keep an open mind, have flexibility, and consider different options to increase your chances of getting in. Long wait lists are also common for Section 202 housing. 
  • Contact information, description of the unit size, amenity details, and nearby amenities are listed on each unit for you to make a pro and con list. 
  • Income qualification tables will also be listed for ease of understanding if you’re eligible based on your family household size. 
  • List of assistance programs funded by HUD will also be indicated on specific units. 
  • Waiting list status for units are available for future applicants. A ‘green’ icon stating “Waiting List is Open Now” will be indicated. 

Public Housing

Public housing was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, older adults, and persons with disabilities. From single family houses to high rise apartments, there’s a sure fit for families with different needs, preferences, and family make-up. 

Currently, there are approximately 1.2 million households living in public housing units. Similar to housing vouchers and multifamily subsidized homes, HUD administers funds to PHAs to manage housing for low-income residents at affordable rent prices. 

Who is eligible? Low-income families and individuals are the target audience for public housing. PHAs look at: 

  • Annual gross income. 
  • Whether you qualify as elderly, a person with disability, or as a family.  
  • U.S. citizenship or eligible immigration status. 
  • Housing history references and a record of being good tenants. PHAs have zero tolerance for applicants with a detrimental history on other tenants living nearby or within the local dwelling environment. 
  • PHAs use income limits developed by HUD. As a rule of thumb, lower income limits are set at 80% and very low-income are set at 50% of the median income for the immediate metropolitan area that you choose to live in. Income limits vary from area to area so you may be eligible at one PHA but not another. The PHA serving your community can provide you with the income levels for your area and family size. 

Application process:

  • Ready to apply? Contact your local PHA by first choosing your state and then follow through your with zip code. If you’re not able to get through, your next option would be to go directly to the local HUD Field Office
  • Written application: You and your PHA will work together to fill out the application. Listed below are the necessary information and documents to determine eligibility. 
    • Names of all persons who would be living in the unit, their sex, date of birth, and relationship to the family head;
    • Your present address and telephone number;
    • Family characteristics (e.g., veteran) or circumstances (e.g., living in substandard housing) that might qualify the family for tenant selection preferences;
    • Names and addresses of your current and previous landlords for information about your family’s suitability as a tenant;
    • An estimate of your family’s anticipated income for the next twelve months and the sources of that income;
    • The names and addresses of employers, banks, and any other information the PHA would need to verify your income and deductions, and to verify the family composition; and
    • The PHA also may visit you in your home to interview you and your family members to see how you manage the upkeep of your current home.
    • Documentation is needed (e.g., birth certificates, tax returns) to verify the information given on your application. 
    • The PHA will also rely on direct verification from your employer, etc. You will be asked to sign a form to authorize release of pertinent information to the PHA.
  • Once this information is obtained, it’s the PHA’s duty to describe the public housing program to you, the requirements, and any outstanding questions that you and/or your family may have. 

Is there a lease to be signed?

  • Yes, once you have accepted an offer for a house or apartment, you will enter a formal lease agreement with the PHA. Sometimes, a security deposit will be required to move things forward. It is highly recommended that you go over the details of the lease in depth with the PHA and make sure you under the lease. If you don’t feel confident, bring an additional family member or friend that you trust to complete this process with you as it may be nerve-racking. 
  • When you agree to sign the lease, make sure that you understand your responsibilities as a tenant and the PHA’s responsibilities as a landlord. 

Selection preferences in public housing exist to give specific groups of families that have the least resources an advantage in securing housing. As the demand for affordable housing increases, the demand for housing assistance often exceeds the limited resources for homes that HUD and PHAs are able to provide for all families and individuals in need. Here are some tips:

  • If you anticipate that you are eligible for public housing, get started as soon as possible. Long wait lists are common and end up closing when more families applying exceed the number of actual families or individuals that can be helped in the future. 
  • Individual PHAs create their own established preferences reflective on the immediate community needs. Ask your PHA what these specific needs are within your local area and inquire if you align with selection preferences. It never hurts to ask directly what preferences PHAs honor – you may be just the right fit they’re looking for.  

How is rent determined for a tenant? Rent is based on a formula called ‘total tenant payment’ (TTP). TTP represents the minimum amount a family must contribute toward rent and utilities regardless of the unit selected. To put it simply, TTP decides your rent based on the greater of the four options. For example, if your monthly adjusted income was $800: 

  • 30 percent of month adjusted income ($800 x .30 = $240)
  • 10 percent of month gross income ($850 x .10 = $85)
  • The welfare rent (N/A)
  • The PHA minimum rent ($25)
  • Total Tenant Payment: $240. This means that you will never pay less than the TTP ($240) regardless of the unit selected. 

Long Waiting Lists

Again, get started as soon as you’re able to. Take the initiative to save on rent as much as you can so you can budget your income more efficiently on other items that will make your life easier. The truth is, most applicants face long waiting lists even when meeting all of the eligibility criteria. A study from HUD reported:

  • HUD properties tailored for older adults aged 62 and over in metropolitan areas had approximately 11 applicants per available unit. 
  • Applicants, on average, wait over two years for an available unit from the time they are on the wait list. 
  • Many public housing wait lists are already closed or seldomly opened. 

Don’t be discouraged. Again, take these numbers with a grain of salt, as families and individuals do often secure affordable housing within a faster timeline. Act fast, have all of your paper work in hand, and inquire often if you meet ‘selection preferences’ within your community. Asking for a personal case manager consultation from your primary physician may also help secure a home faster as they tend to understand how to jump around loops. 

Personal Experiences: Planning for the Unplanned 

Transitioning into subsidized housing may not have been part of your plan after retirement, but it may just save you from depleting all of your funds and savings. Each person has a unique situation, timeline, and life story. Whether it be large medical costs, being stuck with a high mortgage payment, or unfortunate financial loss, the mission for subsidized housing is clear – paying a fair price on rent according to one’s income. We provide some touching stories from low-income older adults that are currently living in or in the process of applying for subsidized housing. 

Participants in the research study expressed a change in their self-identity due to health or financial circumstances. Many felt that they didn’t belong in senior apartments or subsidized housing. A participant, named Larry, had a fixed income of $1030 per month and his rent was $675 per month – 65.5 percent of his income. Larry wasn’t able to afford anything much after paying for his utility bills and cable TV:

  • Larry related that in the prior year, he often bought food that didn’t last and he lacked money to purchase more.
  • He really enjoyed his apartment and neighborhood but the financial burden was a “challenge” every month.
  • When asked about what his struggles were, Larry reported that his high blood pressure and having Parkinson’s wasn’t the real issue, “The only problem I have is my income.” 
  • For Larry, moving into subsidized housing would reduce his rent by nearly half. 

A second example included those with middle-class work histories but found themselves living in or applying for subsidized housing. A 74 year old woman was currently on a waiting list at the time of the interview. Despite her reported financial success during her working career, she described herself as a victim of the economic collapse. She reported: 

  • Her financial resources had been mostly drained as a result of the economic collapse. 
  • Living in a home with an outstanding mortgage and continued working as a caregiver to make ends meet. 
  • Applying for subsidized housing, with an unknown timeline when she will have to transition to subsidized housing. 
  • Feelings of grief because she didn’t expect she would be living in subsidized housing given her financial success and middle-class status during her career. 

Strong social support and organization also exist within subsidized housing. Perspective taking seems to be a large contributor when it comes to residents feeling happy or unhappy with their situation. A 54 year old woman described her building as a “little town within a city”. 

  • “All of the things that we have on the monthly community chart, as far as the monthly-daily activities chart, it gives me an opportunity, if I chose, this could be like my little town within a city because it’s so many people and it’s close to everything. And the help that we get from the community partners to help us and to get around and to do things, activities and so forth, it makes it really great. So having that it makes a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to participate in a lot of different things.” 

Post-retirement is seen as a time of luxury, but for many low-income older adults, they can’t even afford essential items to sustain their daily lives. Some take a second career in order to afford their current mortgages or to simply keep a roof over their heads. Others are placed on a waiting list for subsidized housing, with no guarantee when it’s their turn. With subsidized housing, a person’s rent could be cut nearly in half. Making room to enjoy not just the essential goods that every person should be able to have, but also room to breath and free their minds of stress. 

Low-income residents living in subsidized housing manage to find solace in one another. Although having a limited income as an older adult is stressful, residents organizing together in the community can overshadow the future that seems all too bleak. Taking action into your own hands and organizing activities to make for a better and more meaningful experience tended to be the result from residents that were proactive. 

Gardening: The Overlooked Activity for Older Adults in Subsidized Housing 

Community gardens provide several benefits, but especially more for older adults in subsidized housing. Many practical benefits come with community gardening for older adults: 

  • Therapeutic benefits of horticulture therapy include lessening an individual’s sense of loss and providing opportunities for creativity, self-expression, social interaction, and sensory stimulation. 
  • Improving self-esteem, practicing fine and gross motor skills and improving hand-eye coordination. 
  • Gardening is also considered to be a moderate to rigorous form of exercise, thus producing physical health benefits as well. 
  • It may also promote mental and physical stimulation and be cognitively protective. 
  • They offer a way of integrating open space, nutrition, and community development. 
  • Unlike public parks, gardening may also provide a sense of safety and cultural continuity for minority and low-income individuals. 
  • Community gardens offer a way to reflect the uniqueness of its population. 
  • Community gardening also may foster collaboration between agencies and groups.  

So, we know theoretically how community gardens can help with older adults, but has it worked in real life? A research study worked with three low-income housing sites specifically to answer this question. One site consisted of 155 units and provided housing vouchers to low-income older adults and individuals. The other two sites were HUD sponsored 202 programs for low-income older adults. Here were the logistics: 

  • Each gardening program is run by the building’s staff or management, who are ultimately responsible for the program.
  • The gardens are located onsite on the outdoor property, and the residents leave their apartments to gather in the common area of the gardens.
  • These gardens are most used for growing produce, such as tomatoes, herbs, eggplant, peppers, however, there are some flowers and other decorative botany. 

‘Mental health benefit’ was a theme that ran true across many of the participants. One participant stated:

  • “It is so relaxing. It just makes me feel peaceful inside. I love doing it. It’s second nature to me. I really love, love the land, love the earth, I just love…I grew up on a farm, first of all. There’s nothing like it. Sometimes I just go out under the tree and I sit there…It relaxes your mind. It gives you that calmness, you know? You can’t always get that everywhere, especially in the city.”

Aside from mental health benefits, some participants that turned to gardening made healthier choices. One participant endorsed that gardening took the place of his need to smoke a cigarette: 

  • “I get a lot of inspiration from it. I don’t think about having that next cigarette or anything like that. So it clears a lot of my thoughts away. This is a cleansing situation for me. Makes you feel real good. Very good. If you got a problem, it takes your mind off of it. That’s if you have problems out there.”

The produce that was harvested in the community garden also saved residents money on groceries. Participants shared that they were able to have access to foods they normally wouldn’t be able to ordinarily have. Community gardens tended to help with cost, saving money, and resolve the issue of living near areas with ‘food deserts’: 

  • “It’s good to have a garden. All those herbs, I’m waiting for them to get ripe. Then use them for salad and cooking. And that’s expensive in the store.” 
  • “You have a lot of problems. Your paying bills here and there and you’re stretching every penny. Yes that’s the reason why you do gardening and anything else you could do, it will help you but also you can save a few dollars if you can get your plants free.”

Lastly, one theme that hit home for many of the participants included giving participants new meaning and a sense of accomplishment. Too often, older adults find themselves sedentary or simply having nothing to do. Many of the participants related that the community garden “gave them something to do”, provided them with a sense of pride, and made them feel accomplished. 

  • “But I would do this stuff even with my back problem. I would do what I got to do. I do a little bit, stop, sit down, get up, go back and do a little more. It feels like a job. It’s not like you’re obligated to do this, you do it because you really like it and you enjoy. You know?”


Relying on social security income for one’s daily needs is a reality for most low-income older adults. Subsidized housing can help to substantially cut the amount of rent a person is spending. As rent prices eat up more than 40 percent of your monthly income post-retirement, little room is left for expenses that are necessary and essential to maintain a decent living. 

With subsidized housing capping rent at no more than 30 percent of your own personal monthly income, you can steer back into the post-retirement lane with more room to breathe. Although subsidized housing may not have been on your radar for your future, take advantage of their useful resources. But do not hesitate or delay your application process – long waiting lists are likely. 

Call your local PHA and look forward to the rental assistance for housing that you’ve always deserved. 

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The Author

Koob Moua, OTR/L, has a doctoral degree in occupational therapy. He works in a hospital setting to help people return to their lives after experiencing severe physical trauma, disability, or a new medical diagnosis through rehabilitation. On his free time, he advocates for his profession by publishing academic journals focusing on self-management of chronic diseases.

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