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Housing and Homelessness

Although low-income and working families in rural areas are more likely than their urban counterparts to own their homes, many rural homeowners live in substandard housing. The social service programs that provide assistance to families to bring their homes up to code are few and far between. The elderly, a significant population in rural areas, need housing accommodations that enable them to stay in their own homes rather than be forced to leave their communities for assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Homelessness exists in rural communities although it is less noticeable because relatives or friends often provide temporary living arrangements for homeless individuals.

Most housing and social service providers in rural communities are located in county population centers, or they are multi-county organizations that are not easily accessible. Various federal agencies have housing programs that provide help. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds three primary types of housing assistance to low-income families: public housing, tenant-based housing and project-based programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service (RHS) operates a broad range of programs that provide assistance regarding homeownership, housing rehabilitation and preservation funding, rental assistance and help to developers of multi-family housing and community facilities.


For information on improving housing conditions for the rural poor
Housing Assistance Council (HAC)
Telephone: 202.842.8600

For information on human service resources
United Way's 2-1-1 information centers are available 24/7 (services vary from community to community). Dial 2-1-1 to reach a center.

For information on rural housing programs
USDA Rural Development/Rural Housing Programs
For questions about the programs and for applications, contact the Rural Development Office for your state.
Find your Rural Development State Office

RD/RHS Centralized Servicing Center
Telephone: 800.414.1226 (English and Spanish)

For technical assistance, training, and information resources to support rural housing and economic development
HUD-Rural Housing and Economic Development Gateway
Telephone: 877.787.2526 (English and Spanish)
For funding and best practices, see the program website.

There are more organizations related to Housing and Homelessness in the organizations section.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the housing needs of low-income rural residents?

Most low-income housing units in rural areas are single-family units, but many of these units may be substandard because they do not meet current building codes. Rural residents need funds to bring their homes or apartments up to code. They need access to affordable mortgages to purchase housing. In fact, affordability is the single largest housing problem for both owners and renters in rural areas, just as it is in urban centers.

Senior housing is a critical component of the housing issue in rural communities. A large majority of the rural population is over 65 and often they are disabled. Many seniors live in homes that need construction projects to accommodate their disability. Other seniors need assisted living quarters or special rental units designed just for seniors, as well as the traditional long term care nursing home. Housing specifically designed for seniors is all too often not available in rural communities.

What federal resources are available for housing assistance?

USDA and HUD are the major federal programs providing direct assistance to low-income rural homeowners and renters. Each agency administers a large number of programs.

Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Program or often referred as the Rural Housing Service within USDA administers programs that assist with the purchase and rehabilitation of single and multi-family homes. These programs offer mortgage financing and loans to low-income and working families who are unable to obtain financing from conventional sources. Rental assistance is also available. For additional information, see USDA's Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Program website.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD programs include the Small Community Block Grant program, the Housing Voucher program and other programs designed to encourage the production and rehabilitation of low-income housing. For information on HUD affordable housing programs, see the HUD website.

What other sources of funding and information are available about housing?

  • Housing Assistance Council (HAC)
    A national nonprofit corporation created to increase the availability of adequate and affordable housing for low-income people in rural areas throughout the United States. HAC offers loans, technical assistance and other housing assistance to non-profit organizations that provide affordable housing resources.
  • Enterprise Community Partners
    Provides training and consulting to nonprofit community developers to promote affordable housing development. The foundation accomplishes this by investing in communities through organizations to create homes that people of low income can afford.
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
    A federally-funded program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Helps low-income households with their home energy bills.
  • Weatherization Assistance Program
    U.S. Department of Energy program enables low-income families to permanently reduce energy bills by making homes more energy efficient through repairs and installation of weatherization technologies
  • Rural Housing Funding Resources
    U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsors the Rural Information Center FAQ. It provides a list of links to government sources, private foundations and organizations that provide information on financial, technical and informational options for rural communities and individuals living in rural areas

Who is considered homeless?

Under a HUD definition a person is considered homeless who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence and; has a primary night time residency that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations. This definition of homelessness does not include households who are sharing the housing of others temporarily because they have nowhere else to go (commonly referred to as “doubled-up”), or those who are staying in motels and similar places due to lack of alternatives. Programmatic definitions for different HUD programs may be even more restrictive. Because such households are not included in the HUD definition of homelessness, they are excluded from HUD services.

What roles can faith and community based organizations play in rural housing development?

Faith-based organizations and community-based organizations have a long history of involvement in programs to support rural housing and assist the homeless. Their activities are especially important in communities where access to services is limited. They most often provide emergency food and housing assistance. As nonprofit housing corporations, they can apply for government funds to build, maintain, weatherize, and manage low-income housing units.

In addition, they can provide support services, such as transportation, child care, and job search assistance, to the community at large and work to promote economic opportunities that create jobs for local residents. Because of their familiarity with local community needs, these organizations can facilitate partnerships between local agencies and businesses.

How can states and localities address housing needs in rural areas?

One strategy is to create housing enterprise zones that encourage the development of affordable housing in targeted areas by offering tax breaks to new owners. In addition, many states and localities are using housing trust funds that are usually established through legislation or ordinance. These funds have many revenue sources; among the most common are set-asides from local real estate transfer taxes, penalties for late payment of real estate taxes, and fees on other real estate-related transactions. Trust fund governing bodies decide how the funds are used. Some are used to subsidize the purchase of affordable housing by providing zero-interest loans or gap financing. Some are used to provide rental assistance, while others are used to serve homeless populations.

States can also target HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME Investment Partnership Program, as well as their own resources and bond funding to address rural housing needs. The CDBG program provides annual grants on a formula basis to many different types of grantees through several state programs and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program helps to expand the supply of decent, affordable housing for low and very low-income families by providing grants to States and local governments.

What are the causes of rural homelessness?

Rural homelessness, like urban homelessness, is most often the result of poverty and a lack of affordable housing. However, there are underlying factors that contribute to the cause of homelessness such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness. Another characteristic prevalent in rural areas is limited access to transportation and to social service agencies that may solve housing problems and reduce the factors that contribute to the cause.

In addition, there are far fewer shelters in rural areas. Therefore, people experiencing homelessness are less likely to live on the street or in a shelter and more likely to live in a car or camper, or with relatives in overcrowded or substandard housing. A higher percentage of homeowners and renters in rural communities live in inadequate housing when compared to their urban counterparts.

Where can I find housing statistics about my community?

Several web sites can provide statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Community Survey is a new nationwide survey designed to provide communities information on how they are changing. It includes data tables, ranking tables and surveys on demographic, social, economic, and housing data for over 800 geographical areas.

  • American FactFinder
    A source of data and other information on United States population, housing, economy and geography.
  • State Data Center Program
    An official source of state-level demographic, economic, and social statistics produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. This site includes links to each state data center.

For additional sources of statistical data, see RAC's Statistics and Data topic guide.