OLR Research Report

February 20, 2002





By: John Moran, Research Analyst

You asked for update on the Massachusetts law that attempts to limit the percentage of non-elderly disabled tenants living in state-funded elderly housing.


Massachusetts officials report the 1995 law that seeks to limit the number of non-elderly disabled tenants in state-funded elderly housing has been largely successful in:

1. reducing the number of problems that arise from these mixed populations sharing the same housing;

2. slowing what had been a sharply increasing rate of non-elderly seniors moving in, and

3. reducing the relatively high percentage of non-elderly disabled tenants in certain projects.

But some advocates for people with disabilities say in parts of Massachusetts there is not enough housing to accommodate all those in need, and the law's placement preferences make it more difficult for disabled people to find housing in these areas.

The officials we contacted cited the following elements of the 1995 law, commonly referred to as the “mixed population” law, as helping reduce the tension between elderly and non-elderly disabled tenants in elderly housing:

1. placement preference percentages (86.5% for elderly and 13.5% for non-elderly) that determine which individuals get preference when unit openings occur;

2. stricter applicant screening that includes criminal background checks;

3. service coordinators to assist both the elderly and non-elderly in obtaining the necessary services;

4. 800 new rent vouchers for disabled people to rent privately owned accessible units;

5. a statewide registry of accessible units (both private and public) with searchable web page, and

6. a streamlined eviction process to enable housing authorities to remove troublesome tenants more quickly.


Massachusetts has more than 30,000 units of state-funded housing for elderly and disabled people (which represents more than two-thirds of all of its state public housing). As in Connecticut, local housing authorities administer almost all of the elderly housing.

The mixed population law was enacted in response to years of complaints from elderly tenants and housing authority operators about the growing number of non-elderly disabled residents moving into elderly housing and the rising tensions between the two groups. (See Office of Legislative Research report 2000-R-1001 for a detailed description of the law.)


Placement Preferences

The law requires housing authorities to use placement preferences to reach a specific proportion between elderly and non-elderly disabled tenants. The goal is to rent 86.5% of the units to the elderly (those over 60) with the remaining 13.5% going to the disabled.

If the percentage of elderly households in a project is below 86.5%, then the authority must select elderly applicants from its waiting list until the goal is reached. If there are no elderly applicants, then the authority must select “near elderly” applicants, ages 50-59, in the interim. If there are no near elderly on the list, authorities select non-elderly disabled applicants.

If the percentage of non-elderly disabled households is below 13.5%, then the authority must give half of its openings to such applicants until it reaches the goal (the other half going to elderly). The law forbids evicting any lawful residents in order to reach the goal.

Housing officials indicate these preferences have helped bring some housing authorities that had 25% or more non-elderly tenants closer to the 13.5% goal. A biennial Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) survey of housing authorities (conducted since the law became effective) shows that of the 15 authorities with non-elderly disabled populations over 25%, nine reported a decreased population, four increased, and two remained the same. This variation seems to indicate a number of factors at play, including the differences in how individual housing authorities implement the law and the varying housing needs in different sections of the state.

But at the same time, the overall percentage of non-elderly disabled people in elderly housing has increased according to the same surveys (see Table 1):

Table 1. Percentages of Non-Elderly Tenants in Elderly Housing


% non-elderly

Total non-elderly


Total elderly and

Non-elderly units













Lisa Sloane, a disability advocate and housing policy consultant for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, said the law's placement

preferences make it more difficult for disabled people to find housing in areas, such as Boston, where the housing market is especially tight. She said the goal for disabled people should be about 20% rather than 13.5%.

Stricter Applicant Screening

The law gives housing authorities access to the state criminal database, which they now routinely use in applicant background checks, said Tom Connelly, director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, an association of housing authorities. Connelly and Carole Collins, state DHCD director of public housing asset management, both said the background checks have helped keep potentially troublesome individuals out of public housing and thus have been key in stabilizing relations between elderly and non-elderly tenants.

The law allows authorities to reject applicants if background checks reveal their behavior could pose a threat to the health and safety of other tenants. Connelly said these behaviors include histories of violent crimes, domestic abuse, drug or other substance abuse, or selling drugs. He said during their application, people are asked to agree to the background check in order to proceed with the application. “Many don't sign at that point and they never come back,” Connelly said. “So they basically remove themselves.”

Connelly said authorities used to be very hesitant to deny anyone, and now they have become more assertive about denials and better understand what denials will be upheld on appeal to the DHCD.

The law also changes the definition of handicapped for purposes of state public housing to exclude anyone whose sole disability is a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Collins said this exclusion is not widely used because disabled people are often dually diagnosed.

Service Coordinators

In a study of the new housing service coordinators (for both elderly and the non-elderly groups) all the housing authority executives contacted stated the coordinators' assistance with tenant needs greatly relieved management from the pressures of handling these issues and allowed them to spend more time managing the properties. The study, conducted by the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, found (1) the presence of the service coordinators insured the needs of many elderly and non-elderly are met effectively and quickly, (2) in many instances coordinator intervention prevented problem situations from escalating into evictions, and (3) building managers often turned to coordinators for help and value their assistance.

Rent Vouchers for Disabled

The law created 800 new rent vouchers that disabled people could use in accessible privately owned apartments. This has helped many young disabled people find housing in the community, Sloane, a disability advocate and housing policy consultant, said. But, the vouchers do not help in certain parts of the state, especially the Boston area, where there is hardly available any market housing. She said in markets like that people have no place to use the vouchers.

Statewide Registry of Accessible Units

The accessible units registry tracks more than 11,000 accessible units in over 2,400 public and private developments. Since August the registry is available on a web page (, that allows people to search for accessible units in specific towns and obtain details on the units as well as related information such as proximity to public transportation or hospitals. The registry and web site are managed by the Citizens Housing and Planning Association ( and funded by the State Rehabilitation Commission and the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council.

Registry program manager Janna Peckham said the registry was receiving between 8,000 and 10,000 calls a year before the creation of the web page. Sloane said the web page is very useful to those with physical disabilities, but it doesn't help others who are simply unable to find affordable units where they live.

Streamlined Eviction Process

The streamlined eviction process has reduced the time it takes for eviction proceedings from months to a matter of two or three weeks, according to Connelly. Tenants are generally entitled to a housing authority hearing before the authority can seek an eviction action in court. But the law allows the hearing to be waived for a number of reasons, including if the tenant is believed to (1) have caused serious physical harm to someone, (2) illegally possessed a firearm, or (3)

engaged in criminal activity that seriously threatens the health or safety of other tenants. If the eviction action is brought due to one of the conditions that triggers the waiver, it also receives expedited treatment in court.