Housing Search Strategies

How to Do an Effective Housing Search

One of most important things to remember in your housing search is that you are your own best advocate, and the most persistent person will eventually get housing in today’s competitive housing market.

I. Questions You Should Consider Before Starting Your Housing Search

  • Where do you want to live?
  • How many bedrooms do you need?
  • Do you need a wheelchair accessible apartment, or an apartment with any other special features?
  • How much can you afford to spend on rent?
  • What type (if any) services to do you need to have close by? For example, do you need to live near public transportation, medical services, grocery store, etc?
  • Are there any factors that might make it difficult to obtain housing? (a criminal record; an eviction, etc.)

II. Important Information To Gather

  • Evidence of income (SSI, employment income, etc)
  • Establish a savings account to use for a deposit, first or last month’s rent, etc
  • Get a copy of your credit report – Massachusetts residents are eligible to receive one free copy of their credit report from each of the three bureaus once a year – and address any credit problems.
  • Keep receipts and stubs from paid bills such as your phone, utilities, etc. These documents show that you have been paying your bills on time.
  • Write down your full housing history for the past 5 years, including addresses, zip codes and any contact information for the landlords.

III. Different Types of Housing to Consider

  • Subsidized Housing: If you have a limited income, including receiving SSI, SSDI or other public assistance, you may be eligible for subsidized housing. (Fact Sheet on Subsidized Housing). The programs that you may be eligible for depend on your income, your age, and/or your disability. Additionally, towns and cities vary in the amount and type of housing stock available.
  • Market Rate Housing: Market rate housing is any rental housing that is not subsidized. There are some programs that assist people with renting market rate housing.

The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the state housing authority, has a publication called “How to Obtain Housing Assistance”, which has a list of all the local and regional housing agencies and their addresses and phone numbers, and other valuable housing search information. You can call them at (617) 573-1300 and ask to obtain a copy of their publication. You can view a copy on-line here.

IV. Decide Which Type(s) of Housing You Want to Search For

Searching for Tenant Based Subsidized Housing: Tenant-based subsidized housing is often called rental assistance, or a voucher. A tenant-based voucher is not attached to a particular unit, but follows the tenant wherever he or she moves. This is a very popular type of rental assistance.

There are several different programs that provide vouchers:

  • Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program is a federally-funded tenant-based rental assistance program that is run by housing authorities
  • Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP) and the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) are similar to the Section 8 program but are specifically for Massachusetts. AHVP vouchers are specifically for income-eligible non-elderly disabled households.
  • (Fact sheet on rental assistance programs.)
  • There are several different places to apply for tenant-based assistance:
  • Apply at your Regional Non-Profit Housing Agency for a Section 8 voucher. Regional Non-Profits have waiting lists that are open indefinitely for Section 8 vouchers. Click here for a list of Section 8 agencies and click here to download the pre-application for Section 8.

There is a high demand for rental assistance in Massachusetts. As a result, there is usually a waiting list. The length of time it may take to obtain a voucher will vary from housing authority to housing authority.

Searching for Project-Based Assistance: Project-based assistance refers to apartments in which the subsidies are attached to the units. Unlike tenant-based assistance, the apartment itself is subsidized and if you move out of the apartment, the subsidy stays. The most common example of project-based assistance is an apartment in a building owned by a housing authority.

In Massachusetts, there are many different kinds of buildings that have project-based assistance. As a result, there are several different places to apply:

  • Use this Mass Access website. Mass Access has a “View All Vacant Apartments” (link) page that lists apartments that are currently vacant throughout the state. Many of these apartments are accessible, particularly wheelchair accessible, and many are subsidized. If you do not specifically need a wheelchair accessible apartment, you can also search for apartments on the “Advanced Housing Search” (link) page. This page contains information on every subsidized apartment in the state and tracks information on location, rent, accessible features, bedroom size and neighborhood features. You can search for apartments in every community in the state that meet your specific search criteria and call and apply at those developments.
  • Apply at all of the Local Housing Authorities within your search that are for elderly/disabled housing or family public housing. (If you need a one bedroom unit or larger, you should also apply for family public housing anyway). You can search for housing authorities on HUD's website.
  • Apply at all of the MassHousing properties within your search area. MassHousing is a great resource even if you do not need subsidized housing, because many of the developments listed have both subsidized and market rate apartments. You can find out about these properties by MassHousing at:
  • MassHousing (617) 854-1000 or www.masshousing.com and ask to obtain their housing list in order to apply at ALL developments within your search area. The broader your search area is, the faster it is to acquire subsidized housing.

V. Tips for Applying for Housing

  • People with disabilities who cannot apply in-person can request applications for housing be mailed to them as a reasonable accommodation (Fact Sheet on Reasonable Accommodations).
  • Make sure to check off any preferences or priories that apply to you.
  • Keep a file with those copies attached to any confirmation or denial letter that you receive from a housing agency or management company.
  • When it is appropriate to do so, appeal any denial you receive. If you need assistance, contact your local Independent Living Center (link) or to find a local legal services office, visit: www.masslegalhelp.org.
  • Respond to every piece of housing correspondence as soon as possible. If you need a reasonable accommodation to have extensions on deadlines or need to receive correspondence in alternate formats, ask for those accommodations either when applying, or as soon as the need is clear.
  • Work on clearing up, or at least addressing, any criminal records, credit, substance abuse or tenancy problems, or other behavioral issues in the beginning of the process, so that they do not hinder eligibility or tenancy in the future. If you need assistance, you should contact your local Independent Living Center (link).
  • When you receive notification that your name is approaching the top of the waiting list, gather updated documentation (such as income documentation) that is current (within 30 days) to prove eligibility and have it ready.
  • Talk to everyone about your need for an apartment and how much you are looking to spend for rent. Contact the landlords of friends who are good tenants and have good relationships with their landlords. for a fact sheet).
  • Again, keep in mind that while applying for subsidized housing or rental assistance can be a frustrating and long process, it is important to apply at as many places at possible and get on the waiting lists at as many housing agencies and management companies as possible. The most persistent applicant will eventually get housing.


  • “The Housing Process”, Shelley O’Neill and Michelle Harris.
  • “Accessing Affordable Housing for Low-Income People: How to Represent Your Low-Income Clients Effectively”, MCLE, 2001.
  • “Tips for Finding Affordable Housing”, Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, August 2003

The Mass Access Fact Sheets were funded in part by the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council