Obtaining public housing in New York City is extremely difficult for citizens and immigrants alike.  The vacancy rate is just 0.6% and the average stay in public housing is approximately 20 years. As of November 2008, 131,000 families were on the waiting list for apartments — and the number is growing. Here are some questions and answers on how the process works:

Who is eligible?

The New York City Housing Authority defines a family as two or more people related through blood, marriage, or guardianship; unrelated people who share a household, or an individual person. A family is deemed eligible for public housing if its income does not exceed NYCHA limits and if the person who signs the housing documents is over 18.

What role does immigration status play?

A family must have at least one member who is a U.S. citizen or has a green card (known as “eligible immigration status”). This means that a family with ineligible adults but an eligible child still qualifies for housing, but the rent would be more than a family with all eligible immigrants. Rent in this case would be based on a prorated formula, with immigration-eligible family members paying a reduced rate. If no family members have proper documentation, the whole family is declared ineligible for NYCHA housing.

What is the placement process?

When a family is declared eligible, NYCHA determines the size of the apartment based on the number of people within the family and the family’s composition; any changes in family size must be reported to NYCHA.

Housing assignments are selected through a computer program that places families based on their eligible apartment size and borough preference. When an apartment opens up in a family’s preferred borough, the family is given the option whether or not to accept. Families who reject placement are returned to the master list, where they must wait for the next available apartment. Families who do not receive a call for placement within three years must re-apply, but do not lose their position on the waiting list.