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It's Not All HOPWA!

Housing Assistance for HIV-Positive Persons with Modest Incomes

November 1999

When it comes to paying the rent -- or even finding an affordable place to live in the first pace -- people with AIDS and those who work with them automatically think "HOPWA!" Too often, though, it's the only thing we think of.

HOPWA is the Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is administered through local bodies such as public housing agencies, Ryan White CARE Act affiliates, and not-for-profit AIDS Service Organizations, or ASOs.

People with AIDS who need housing aid can generally find their way to the local agency -- whether it's the housing department, some sort of Ryan White-affiliated agency, or a local ASO -- that administers, takes applications for, and determines eligibility and priority for HOPWA housing aid. But HOPWA programs are overburdened, and waiting lists are growing everywhere. This leaves many who need help out in the cold.

The fact is that PWAs -- and, in some cases, even persons who are so far "only" HIV-positive -- can qualify for many of the other HUD-funded housing aid programs that exist in almost every community. Unfortunately, many of these programs are little known to PWAs and their advocates.


Non-HOPWA Housing Aid Programs

There are four kinds of housing aid programs financed by HUD that are open to HIV-positive persons:

  • Publicly owned or managed buildings for the disabled, the elderly, and poor persons in general, run by city, county, or (in a few areas) state housing agencies: The buildings for non-elderly, non-disabled poor persons are what the public thinks of as "public housing" or "the projects" -- often substandard, dangerous complexes. But elderly and disabled persons are almost always housed in buildings and complexes separate from the general public housing.

  • Privately owned or managed buildings and complexes for the elderly, disabled, or both that offer HUD-financed rent subsidies to their occupants: These are often referred to as "fixed" Section 8, HUD-assisted, Section 202, Section 811, or "fixed" voucher complexes. Within HUD guidelines, priority, admission, eligibility determination, and rental computation are the responsibility of the private management of these buildings. The local public housing agency can provide lists of these projects, but does not supervise their operations.

  • Portable Section 8 certificates, HUD vouchers, and so on, that assist with the rent. These are awarded by the public housing agency under its eligibility, priority, and rental computation rules, and the applicant presents them to any willing and qualified private landlord.

  • Shelter Plus Care emergency, temporary (and even permanent) housing aid, on a group-home or individual-unit basis, for homeless persons or those at risk of homelessness: This HUD program, set up by the McKinney Homeless Act, now operates almost everywhere and is run by what are called "Continuum of Care" agencies -- public housing agencies, public/private partnerships, or private non-profits in a given area. These agencies, or their subgrantees, do admission, priority, eligibility, and rental determinations. Housing counselors at large ASOs and professional staff at public housing offices can tell you what the local Shelter Plus Care/Continuum of Care agency is called, and how to contact it.

    Eligibility, Priority, and Waiting List Placement

    Under HUD regulations, eligibility, priority, and placement on waiting lists for HOPWA and other housing aid programs funded by that department are determined according to the following criteria:

    • You must live in, or at least be homeless in, the local jurisdiction.
    • For housing subsidies targeted to the elderly or disabled, you must be over the age of 60 or have been declared fully disabled by Social Security, SSI, the VA, welfare, or Medicaid. In the absence of such public program determination of disability, a doctor's certification must be submitted.
    • Your income must be below eighty percent (in some areas fifty percent) of the area's mean income. Virtually all homeless persons and those on welfare, Social Security, and SSI will easily meet this standard.
    • Priority on waiting lists in many (but not all) localities, goes to people who are homeless; live in over- crowded or substandard housing; have been displaced by urban redevelopment; or are spending over fifty percent of their income on housing. For Shelter Plus Care, you must be homeless, formerly homeless, or at risk of homelessness.
    • For the general, non-aged, non-disabled programs and waiting lists, you need not be over 60 or have been found disabled.

    How Programs Set the Rent

    The amount of rent to be paid by the tenant under all these programs is set at thirty percent of adjusted gross income. The thirty percent rental payment is supposed to cover all utilities -- including air conditioning where available -- except for telephone. Additional rental or utility costs are paid by the housing program, either directly or through various subsidies.

    In determining gross income, the programs add together all of the individual or family's income, including:

    • Total, gross Social Security, before the Medicare deduction is taken out
    • SSI
    • Welfare
    • Pensions
    • Wages, before taxes and payroll deductions are taken out
    • VA benefits
    • Retirement checks
    • Actually received child support
    • All other types of money income.

    To arrive at adjusted gross income, the following are deducted from total gross income. The result is the actually countable income:

    • $33.33 monthly for each disabled or elderly person
    • $40 monthly for each other dependent in the family
    • Medical expenses and help and assistance for the disabled person(s) over three percent of gross income, including insurance and Medicare premiums, deductibles and copayments, and transportation to medical care.
    • Childcare and babysitting expenses for a parent or guardian while working, attending school or training, or going to medical care
    • Any income earned by children under the age of 18
    • Earnings of anyone over age 18 who is a full-time student
    • Any training, scholarship, student loan, or stipend allowance of a job trainee, student, welfare-to-work participant, or vocational rehabilitation client
    • Income or assets being set aside under a Plan for Self-Support authorized by the Social Security Administration for a disabled person's education or employment.

    Public housing agencies have the right -- and many have done so -- to disregard (that is, not count) part of the earnings for those living in public housing buildings (but not for those in privately operated subsidized housing). Those who live in public aged /disabled buildings who have -- or plan to have -- a job should ask whether the agency has such extra earned-income disregards.


    Necessary Documentation

    Regardless of what type of housing aid you are applying for, you will need to have the following documents to prove your eligibility:

  • Birth certificate
  • Green card, immigration papers, or citizenship papers if you are foreign-born
  • Marriage, divorce, separation, custody, alimony, and/or child-support papers
  • Children's and spouse's birth certificates and children's school report cards
  • Driver's license or other state-issued picture identification
  • Award letters and other papers and forms from welfare, Social Security, the VA, and other public programs
  • Auto registration and title
  • Bank account records for preceding three months
  • Job pay stubs for preceding three months
  • Documents proving medical expenses you pay, including transportation to medical care
  • Letter or housing agency form completed by your physician declaring you fully disabled (if you don't have disability award letter from Social Security, the VA or welfare)
  • HIV or AIDS diagnosis letter from your doctor (only if you're applying to HOPWA)
  • Papers and forms about any college aid, job training, or vocational rehabilitation benefits you get
  • Written proof of any other money you receive or things or money you own
  • Documents showing expenses for assistance, special devices, guide dogs, attendants, etc. for disabled persons
  • Priorities and Waiting Lists

    Private Buildings with "Fixed" Subsidized Units
    First of all, applications -- and therefore waiting lists and priorities -- aren't even handled by public housing authorities for the "fixed" Section 8, HUD voucher, and other subsidized units in private buildings. The private management does that -- supposedly using HUD guidelines, but actually exercising its own discretion (and, it must be said, in some instances its own prejudices as well). Lists of these buildings can be picked up at the offices of the public housing authority.

    To apply to these buildings -- and there are likely to be many dozens in the typical metropolitan area -- you must call or visit each rental office, exercising your best diplomacy, flattery, and assertiveness with the sometimes less-than-enlightened individuals who decide who's in and who's out.

    These buildings rarely have formal "waiting lists" as such. Vacant units wind up being given to those who strike the manager's fancy -- or even, in an unknown number of cases, who reward her or him. Although disabling diagnoses aren't supposed to be asked about, this often happens in these settings. And of course, mentioning HIV, mental health problems, or a history of substance abuse can doom an application -- even if you can never prove actual discrimination.

    HOPWA and Shelter Plus Care/Continuum of Care
    These programs, too, are probably not directly managed by your locality's public housing agency -- they're run by ASOs, Ryan White-affiliated groups, or other not-for-profit private agencies. Check with a major ASO -- or, as a last resort, with the professional staff at the local public housing agency -- to locate these programs if you don't know where to apply.

    Here, documentation that you are disabled already is likely to work in your favor, as is a note or other written proof that you are homeless (including, by the way, notes from the friends or relatives who have only temporarily taken you in and upon whose couch you may be sleeping!). Unless you are applying literally off the streets for emergency placement in Shelter Plus Care, you must provide information and documentation of your income, health, residency, and other factors.

    Remember that, while it's no longer required by HUD, many local programs still give priority to those who are homeless; who are at risk of homelessness; who are doubled up with friends or relatives; who are paying over fifty percent of their income on shelter already; or who have been, or shortly will be, evicted through no fault of their own.

    Some HOPWA and even Shelter Plus Care placements/ units may be in group homes or whole buildings or complexes devoted to the program; some may be in "fixed", subsidized units within regular buildings; and, in some cases, it's even possible that these programs may (it's up to them!) issue eligible applicants "portable" vouchers or certificates that can be taken to willing landlords of the applicant's own choice.

    Publicly Run Aged/ Disabled Buildings; "Portable" Certificates and Vouchers
    Here is where a thoughtful strategy is a must for getting to the top of the waiting lists that these agencies almost always have.

    You may have heard news reports about incredibly long, or even closed, waiting lists for public housing in your community: Ignore them -- the news media are almost always referring to the lists for non-aged, non-disabled persons. Aged and disabled vacancies happen often enough; to be somewhat blunt, there's a high "turnover." Their waiting list times are therefore much shorter than the "regular" lists.

    A housing agency may have one master housing waiting list or it may break it down into segmented smaller lists. There might be one for all agency-administered housing subsidies, for all applicants, whether or not aged or disabled. There could be a separate list for all types of housing subsidies for the disabled and aged and a separate list for other applicants (the most common method). Or there could be four (or even six) lists: public housing for regular folks; public housing for the aged and/or disabled; "portable" certificates and vouchers for regular folks; and "portable" certificates and vouchers for the aged and/or disabled.

    Also, many agencies during the late 1990s received a number of "new" or "extra" certificates and vouchers for use by disabled applicants: Ask whether these have a separate waiting list of their own or are awarded from the regular waiting list. In short, find out how many lists there are -- and get on all you can!

    Ask what the waiting list/unit assignment priorities of the agency are. HUD once required that agencies give priority to the homeless; those at risk of homelessness; those "doubled up" with friends and relatives'; those paying over fifty percent of their income on rent; and those displaced by redevelopment. Now, however, local agencies can set their own priorities. Ask what these are -- and then be sure to let the agency know which categories of the local priorities cover your situation so that you can move up the list as quickly as possible.

    Tips For Negotiating the Housing Aid System

    Remember, under federal law, you need not disclose the nature of your disability -- and you shouldn't if you can help it. (Of course, HOPWA does require that you document that you're HIV-positive -- but that's only because it's a program especially designed for PWAs.) You don't have to disclose your disability with the public housing agency. If you can't provide an award letter from a public agency certifying that you are disabled (it need not, and should not, give your diagnosis!) and you must provide one from your own doctor, that statement also should not disclose your particular diagnosis. Disclosure only invites discrimination. Don't take the chance!

    But some of the people who run the private, fixed-subsidy elderly and disabled buildings are another matter altogether! They'll want to know what's wrong with you, law or no law! Refusing to answer will, of course, mean no apartment, so standing dramatically on your rights here will be counterproductive. And these kind of landlords are usually clever enough to cover their tracks when it comes to avoiding discrimination charges.

    What this comes down to in practical terms is that if you mention AIDS, mental health, or substance abuse, you can often kiss your housing unit goodbye. Instead, mention other conditions you really have and tie them to your disability status. Kaposi's sarcoma (KS), for instance, can be characterized vaguely as a persistent cancer; digestive problems common to PWAs can be described as disabling ulcerative colitis. If you're gay, the vague mention of an ex-spouse -- and maybe even children of yours living with that ex -- might immunize you from the "suspicion" of being homosexual. Remember, the people who run these apartments buildings, even those who may be minorities themselves, are just as likely as anyone to harbor (and successfully conceal from legal action) prejudices against gays, PWAs, mental health patients, and persons in recovery.

    All housing programs' waiting lists can last years. This is why it is important to give an address and telephone number (perhaps one of a trusted friend) to be sure that when and if your name does get to the top of the waiting list, the program can contact you.

    There is one other feature of housing agency waiting lists that is important for persons with HIV: Most housing agencies don't demand full documentation of income or disability to add someone to the bottom of a waiting list. The full eligibility workup -- including proof of disability -- is only done for those who actually reach the top of the list. Thus someone who is "only" HIV-positive can get on the housing agency's waiting list now, just in case the disease progresses to full-blown, disabling AIDS by the time he or she reaches the top. This is particularly important for people who anticipate that finances will be severely limited once work becomes impossible.

    Housing Shell Game in New York

    While these other programs are an important part of the overall housing aid picture, HOPWA remains a vital resource for many HIV-positive individuals of limited means. And it's one that must be protected, as the New York City HIV/AIDS community learned recently.

    Like many another federal program aimed at helping people in need, HOPWA and its funding attracted the eye of local politicians eager to finance their own agendas. The office of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, no friend to anyone on the tenant side of the housing divide, came up with a complicated scheme for reallocating HOPWA funds in a way it claimed would save the city money.

    The administration's plan was to redirect over $25 million to the Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS) Case Management Services and away from three federally approved areas -- capital projects, DASIS Scattered Site, and DASIS Scattered Site Apartment enhancements -- and for city tax levy funds to be used in their place. According to the plan's architects, this financial sleight of hand would save the city $8 million by enabling it to draw down on New York State matching funds. Sounds good, huh?

    But wary advocates took another look, and warning bells sounded. First, there were no guarantees that the tax levy dollars would be applied as promised, and this administration has a history of not fulfilling its promises to increase the city's stock of affordable housing. Even more alarming, while HOPWA funds must be spent within three years, no such rule would govern the tax levy funds, and the city could hold back money desperately needed for housing.

    The Gay Men's Health Crisis, the New York AIDS Coalition, the New York City AIDS Housing Network, the Commission on the Public's Health System, and others mounted a campaign to prevent the swap. City Councilmembers Christine Quinn and Stephen DiBrienza, State Senator Tom Duane, and State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried enlisted the aid of their colleagues in urging HUD not to give the required approval for the redirection of the funds. In addition to the problems cited above, they pointed out that the use of state money would simply enable the city to reduce its current effort, and would represent an abuse of HOPWA and a misuse of state housing funds.

    HUD agreed, and New Yorkers dodged a bullet this time. Of course, the question now is how the administration will fill the $8 million hole in the city's budget. The fear is that AIDS and related programs will be the next targets.

    Thomas McCormack has done benefits eligibility policy work for several nonprofit and government agencies and wrote the AIDS Benefits Handbook (Yale University Press). He works now with the Title II Community AIDS National Network and writes often about public benefits for disabled persons. Email him at

    Back to the November 1999 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

  • This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
    See Also
    More on HIV and U.S. Gov't Housing Assistance


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