Definitions

This page is a work in progress. I will update terms as they become relevant to my writing, and as I conduct research into their definitions and uses. 

Affordable Housing: Private or public housing that costs no more than 30 percent of its occupants’ income, including utilities. In common usage, it refers to housing for people that earn 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). To achieve rents and mortgages that do not exceed 30 percent of resident income, developers use a combination of local and federal subsidies, all managed by different governing bodies and regulations. This second, poverty-focused definition is the one I will refer to most commonly in this blog. For a more thorough (although by no means complete) definition, please see this post.

As the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stresses, the above description is no more than “a general rule of thumb.”

Area Median Income (AMI): The midpoint of incomes earned in a geographic area. Often the areas are not confined to one city or town, but encompass a large swath of land with strong economic and social ties as evidenced by commuting patterns. Chicago, for example, is part of the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet Metropolitan Area.

Chronic Homelessness: State of being homeless for more than one  year, or more than four times over the course of three years. People who experience chronic homelessness use a disproportionate amount of supportive medical services (emergency rooms, ambulances, inpatient hospitalizations, and detoxification treatments) because they do not have the resources to stay healthy or to seek more traditional means of medical care (annual physical exams, doctors visits, and outpatient hospital services). In 2013, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported 92,593 chronically homeless Americans.

Cost-burdened: State of spending more than 30 percent of household income on housing. Millions of Americans meet this definition, and HUD admits on its website that nowhere in the United States can a household afford a two-bedroom apartment with a minimum wage job. See also, severely cost-burdened .

Deeply Low-Income (DLI): Subset of ELI . Households with an income at or below 15 percent AMI. This represents the bottom tier of earners. DLI households have the least amount of available and affordable housing options, and are the most likely of all households to pay more than 50 percent of income to rent and utilities. In 2014, according to a 2016 report by the National Low-Income Housing Council (NLIHC), 90 percent of DLI households were severely cost-burdened. Housing research does not often focus on this subset of ELI households, and no description exists yet on the HUD website.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Agency created by the 1965 Housing and Urban Development Act to oversee the creation of new housing and communities, and to ensure housing opportunities for everyone, regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap (but not sexual or gender preference).

Disabled Family, as defined by HUD for the HCV Program: Any family whose head, spouse, or co-head has a disability that enables them to collect  Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security (SS) benefits coded for disability (and not given based on age alone). This person must have a physical or mental impairment that will either result in death or will last for at least 12 months, and makes it impossible to “engage in gainful activity.” People with developmental disabilities that manifest before age 22 also qualify. Drug- and alcohol-based disabilities do not qualify.

Elderly Family: Any family in which the head, spouse, or co-head is at least 62 years old. This designation allows certain deductions for participants in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program (previously Section 8).

Extremely Low-Income: Households with an income of no more than 30 percent AMI. Adjustments are made based on family size and local market variances. HUD provides an in depth discussion of the calculation. Established by the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998.

Fair Market Rent (FMR): A sum calculated by HUD for each fiscal year to standardize rents in many of its housing subsidy programs. The amount varies by location, and is generated using data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, the 2012 American Community Survey, and the Consumer Price Index. FMR does not influence non-subsidized state minimum rents, or any other market-rate rental scales. More detailed information about the calculation and various adjustment factors used can be found here.

Homelessness, as defined by HUD: State of living without a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. People who experience homelessness are either sheltered (living in emergency or transitional housing) or unsheltered (living in a car, on public transportation, sidewalks, park benches, roadways and other places not meant for human habitation). Chicago’s 2014 Place in Time Homeless Count revealed 5,329 sheltered and 965 unsheltered homeless individuals.

Municipalities often consider unsheltered homelessness illegal and fine or jail those who need to survive outdoors despite research showing the cost of providing housing is less than the cost of involving the criminal justice system.

Homelessness, as defined by McKinney-Vento Act: Used by the U.S. Department of Education to track homeless student, it incorporates HUDs definition into additional, more comprehensive parameters. Includes children and youths who are “doubling-up” their housing by living with friends and/ or family, in motels, hotels, campgrounds or trailer parks for lack of other adequate housing; have been abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting placement in the foster-care system. Migratory children are also considered under this definition.

Housing Choice Voucher (HCV): A rental subsidy funded by HUD and distributed by local public housing authorities (PHAs). PHAs pay a portion of the rent to landlords, and households are responsible for the remaining rent (exact proportions are based on income). Recipients use this mobile subsidy to find housing in the private market. It is the most recent iteration of public housing, or the project-based voucher (PBV) program, and is also referred to as tenant-based rental assistance. Households are free to live in any apartment for which they qualify; the subsidy moves if they move, and it can be transferred throughout the country. This program encourages social and economic diversity by not limiting households to specific neighborhoods or buildings.

Housing Wage: An estimate of the full-time hourly wage required to afford a safe and adequate rental unit using HUD’s Fair Market Rent guidelines. Affordability here is calculated as 30 percent of gross income. This figure is often used to highlight the disparity between local minimum wages and local housing costs. The 2015 Housing Wage in Illinois is $18.78 per hour.

Income limits: Percentage of income earned relative to AMI, used to determine how much and what kind of assistance a person is eligible to receive. Income limit is based on family size, so assistance is scaled appropriately to perceived need. Qualifications vary based on state and program regulations; eligibility with one market or administering body does not guarantee eligibility in any other city or state or through any other agency. For example, in Chicago, units built under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance are eligible to renters earning up to 60 percent of AMI ($43, 440 for a family of four); Section 8 vouchers, administered by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), are generally only available to people with incomes up to 50 percent of AMI ($36, 200 for a family of four).


Linkage Fee:  also, impact fee. Fee attached to new private developments, when mandated by local ordinances. Funds generated by the fee are used to build new affordable housing within city limits or to maintain and upgrade existing affordable buildings. In some places they even help fund relocation expenses for people looking for new housing or effected by the conversion of affordable units to market-rate prices. These fees ensure continual resources for affordable housing, even in areas where gentrification is substantial.

Low-Income: Households with an income of no more than 80 percent of AMI. Adjustments are made based on family size and local market variances. HUD provides an in depth discussion of the calculation.

Low-income Housing Tax Credits: Financing option for affordable housing whereby developers receive tax credits from the IRS which they then sell to investors for up-front working capital and shared equity. The program has helped fund more than 2 million units nation-wide since the program’s inception in 1987.

Market-Rate Apartment: Unit with no rent restrictions; the landlord of such a unit may set rent at whatever rate people are willing to pay.

Median Rent: The midpoint in the range of rents paid in a given metropolitan or non-metropolitan area. Usually used to provide an estimate of the typical cost of rent in an area. Neighborhood affordability is often gauged by the area’s median rent. Note: median does not an average, or mean; because rent prices can vary widely in a city, averages provide a less accurate picture of prices.

Project-based voucher (PBV): A rental subsidy that is associated with a unit in a specific building; it is not mobile. If the household moves from the unit, their subsidy does not follow. This is commonly known as public housing. Many buildings that utilize project-based vouchers also provide supportive services, such as case managers, health care assistance and social support, making it an ideal choice for people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

Severely Cost-burdened: State of spending more than 50 percent of household income on rent. In 2012, 24.7 percent of American rental households and 10.5 percent of owner households met this criteria. Severely cost-burdened households often cannot afford food, transportation, clothing, medical bills and other necessary expenses. These households have no financial stability and, therefore, are at high risk for homelessness.

Single Room Occupancy Unit (SRO): Small rental units for one (at most two) occupants in multi-unit buildings, often with shared bathroom and/or kitchen facilities. These units are small (approximately 200 square feet, on average) and inexpensive. They are most common source of non-subsidized affordable rental housing. SROs have a bad reputation for being run by negligent landlords, having building and health code violations and housing only drug addicts and criminals. A renewed focus on revitalizing and preserving these units, however, has resulted in new public understand of their benefits: low-cost housing for formerly homeless people and others down on their luck who cannot or have not secured a spot in subsidized or public housing. Additionally, many non-profits use the SRO model in their apartment buildings because of its efficiency. SRO units are often considered transitional or temporary housing.


Very Low-Income: Households with an income of no more than 30 percent AMI. Adjustments are made based on family size and local market variances. HUD provides an in depth discussion of the calculation.