Take Five Steps When Opening Waiting Lists
After years of having a closed waiting list, your site may find itself having enough vacancies to open waiting lists again. HUD allows a site to close waiting lists in the first place for one or more unit sizes when the average wait is excessive, such as one year or more [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(B)(1)(a)].
But once the decision is made to open waiting lists, you need to be prepared for administrative obstacles. For example, you need to know which households you’re looking for, how to get the word out that your waiting list is open, how to process and rank applications fairly, and how to notify eligible applicants of their ranking. If you make a mistake, you can face discrimination claims and get into trouble with HUD.
Here’s what to do to help make the process of opening your waiting list go as smoothly as possible while avoiding administrative and fair housing problems.
Step #1: Review Site Marketing and Selection Rules
Your site should have both an affirmative fair housing marketing plan (AFHMP) and a resident selection plan. Review both of these before opening your waiting list, and follow the procedures each sets out.
AFHMP. According to HUD, when opening waiting lists, the notice of this action must be announced in a publication likely to be read by potential applicants in the same manner (if possible, in the same publications) as the notification that the waiting list was closed [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(B)(2)(a)]. Advertisements should include where and when to apply and should conform to the advertising and outreach activities described in the AFHMP [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(B)(2)(b)].
Your AFHMP is a completed HUD Form 935.2A that your local HUD office has approved. You must keep a copy in your site’s files since HUD requires that it be available for public inspection at the sales or rental office [24 CFR 200.625]. The AFHMP outlines the strategies you must use whenever you market units at your site, including how to notify potential applicants that a waiting list is open. A section of the form asks for community contacts and methods of advertising to market the site.
The purpose of this plan is to ensure that you market in compliance with federal fair housing laws and take steps to attract groups that normally wouldn’t be likely to apply without special outreach efforts (because of existing neighborhood racial or ethnic patterns, the location of housing at that rent level, or other factors).
Resident selection plan. Your resident selection plan says how you’ll rank applicants on the waiting list, including any preferences you’ll give for, say, disability, extremely low-income level, or working families.
Step #2: Notify the ‘Public’
HUD requires you to notify the “public,” meaning the target population for your site described in your AFHMP, when you open a waiting list. To do this, you can mail or fax a notice to the organizations and community contacts listed in your AFHMP. Your notice should:
- Advise the organizations that you’ve opened a waiting list at your site. Mention the size of available units, and any applicable preferences. For instance, you might specify that you’re accepting applications for one-bedrooms and have an admissions preference for households with “extremely low income”;
- State when and how to get applications (for example, in person or by mail);
- Give the deadline, if any, for submitting applications;
- State the ranking process, such as first-come, first-served or random drawing;
- Mention any other open lists available; and
- Include required fair housing information, such as the fair housing logo, statement, or slogan. HUD rules require all assisted sites to include the fair housing logo, statement, or slogan in their ads and other marketing materials.
Step #3: Save Time and Money by Using Pre-Application
It’s a waste of time and money to have every applicant who responds to the open waiting list notice fill out a full-length application. Instead, HUD lets you offer applicants a shorter pre-application form when placing them on waiting lists [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-14 (C)(1)].
A pre-application form asks applicants for the essential eligibility and screening information, but requires less time and effort for applicants to fill out and site staff to process. In some cases, a completed pre-application will make it immediately obvious that a household isn’t eligible and may be rejected. This prevents your waiting lists from getting filled with ineligible households who must endure long waits only to be told when they reach the top of the list that you must reject their applications.
Use your pre-application form to request basic information necessary to determine whether households meet your site’s eligibility and screening criteria, and to determine unit size. This includes household composition, income, current and previous address, previous assistance, eviction and criminal histories, and what unit size they need.
Step #4: Conduct Random Drawing to Rank Applications
Sites may use both traditional and non-traditional approaches to taking applications. While the traditional method tends to be in-person at the offices on a first-come, first-served basis, other approaches may be considered. Some sites may want to implement a mail-in application process or a lottery or other random selection approach; accept applications over the Internet; print an application in the local newspaper; or develop an innovative approach that addresses local needs.
If you’re expecting a rush when you open your waiting list, a traditional first-come, first-served approach may be problematic. Some sites draw thousands of applicants, who wait in line for hours or even days to get applications. This can cause problems for site staff and isn’t fair to applicants, particularly those with disabilities who can’t camp out or may not even be able to come to the site to get an application. They may complain that a first-come, first-served policy gives them no chance to get near the top of the waiting list and discriminates against them based on disability.
The fairest way to rank applications, particularly if you expect to attract a crush of applicants, is to use a random drawing. Under this approach, the waiting list isn’t established based on date and time of application. Instead, the site randomly orders applications to form its waiting list. If the site anticipates receiving far more applications than it can assist in a reasonable period of time, the lottery rules can be established in advance with a limit to the number of applications that will be placed on the waiting list. When the application deadline has passed, the site randomly selects the number of applications from a pool of all applications submitted. Those selected are randomly ordered on a waiting list.
It’s a good idea to ask a third party, such as your site’s lawyer, accountant, or private firm, to conduct the drawing; otherwise you open yourself up to claims of discrimination or favoritism. If you keep your list open after the drawing, you can add applicants to the bottom of the list on a first-come, first-served basis.
Step #5: Notify Applicants of Placement on Waiting List
Once a site owner makes a preliminary eligibility determination ensuring that there are no obvious factors that would make the applicant ineligible and the units of appropriate size are not vacant, the owner may put a household on the waiting list and notify the family when a suitable unit becomes available. In this case, a final eligibility determination is made at the time the unit is available.
It’s a good idea to send wait-listed applicants a letter so you can spell out their status and any requirements at this point. Your letter should:
- Stress to applicants that they’re “apparently eligible” for a unit, but that you must determine their eligibility when they reach the top of the list;
- Tell them the waiting time until a unit becomes available is an estimate based on turnover rates and the number of other eligible applicants on the waiting list; and
- Ask applicants to notify you of any changes to their household, income, or contact information, and to keep in touch periodically to confirm they want to stay on the waiting list. HUD says you can require applicants to contact you every six months to stay on the waiting list [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(D)(2)(b)].
Don’t guarantee admission. Keep in mind that when notifying applicants, be careful not to give them the impression that you’re guaranteeing their admission to the site. Otherwise, misunderstandings and conflicts could result if applicants who appear to be eligible when you place them on the waiting list are no longer eligible when they reach the top of the list. For example, their household size or income may have changed by the time you’re ready to admit them. Or they may have been arrested or filed for bankruptcy in the months or years they’ve been on the list.