It's Not All HOPWA!
Housing Assistance for HIV-Positive Persons with Modest Incomes
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:
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:
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:
To arrive at adjusted gross income, the following are deducted from total gross income. The result is the actually countable income:
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.
Priorities and Waiting Lists
Private Buildings with "Fixed" Subsidized Units
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.