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Uncle Sam Can Help With Your Housing Costs in Retirement

Sarah Cunnane
Uncle Sam Can Help With Your Housing Costs in Retirement

You can put money aside for decades, then start cashing out your retirement savings and collecting Social Security — and find yourself wondering how you're going to keep a roof over your head now that you're no longer working full time.

Housing costs can be a major drain on a retiree's resources, particularly if you don't own your own home or are living in a pricey area that's not hospitable to people trying to get by on fixed incomes.

But don't despair, because several government programs offer grants, vouchers and other housing assistance for seniors.

Housing choice voucher program

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The housing choice voucher program can help seniors afford their apartments.

The housing choice voucher program — formerly known as Section 8 — was developed in the 1970s by HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help lower-income Americans pay the rent on homes of their choosing in the private market.

The assistance is available to seniors who wish to live independently, or who want to move into assisted living and need help with those costs. In some cases, vouchers can even be used to buy modest homes.

If it's a rental you want, you can choose any apartment, single-family home or town house, provided that the landlord agrees to accept the voucher and the house is safe and clean. The money will be paid directly to the landlord, to subsidize your monthly rent.

The amount of your housing voucher will depend on a number of factors, including the typical rents in your area, your total monthly income and the median income in your county.

To qualify for the program, your household income must be at least 50% below the median where you live.

Section 202 housing

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The Section 202 housing program provides affordable, subsidized housing for older people with low or very low incomes, especially those with disabilities who need in-home help.

To qualify for Section 202 housing, you must be 62 or older, and your yearly income must be less than 50% of the median county income. In some cases, it must be under 30% of the median.

Hundreds of apartment buildings throughout the U.S. are part of the Section 202 program and offer reduced rents and support services for older people.

Be warned that there tend to be lengthy wait lists for units in Section 2 buildings. To learn more about the program, contact your nearest HUD office.

VA loans and grants

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Seniors who served in the military and their survivors can buy homes using low-cost mortgages backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

You don't need a lot of cash to land a VA home loan: The department says nearly 90% of borrowers make no down payment.

To qualify for a VA loan, you must have good credit, sufficient income and a certificate of eligibility. You can obtain your certicate from a lender, or from the VA's eBenefits site, or by filling out an application and dropping it into the mail.

The VA also has housing grants available to help veterans with service-related disabilities buy homes or make modifications to their current homes. A veteran can receive up to $85,645 in 2019 through the grant program, called Specially Adapted Housing (SAH).

Reverse mortgages

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Older people who worry about whether they can afford to stay in their homes might want to consider a reverse mortgage, available via the federal Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program.

With a reverse mortgage, you receive monthly payments out of the equity in your home and can use the money to pay off your existing mortgage or cover other home-related costs, like your property taxes.

Reverse mortgages have been compared to slowly selling your house to the bank. But they are indeed loans, and they must be repaid when a borrower dies or moves out. The bank will take the house if the loan isn't paid off.

To qualify for a HECM, you must be 62 or older, and you must own your home outright or be very close to paying off your mortgage. Reverse mortgages can be a good choice if you don’t plan on moving and you have no intention of leaving your house to an heir when you die.

Medicaid

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Medicaid, the government's health insurance program for low-income Americans, can provide some financial assistance for residents of assisted living facilities.

It won't cover your room and board, but Medicaid will pay health care and other costs, which can include transportation and dining services.

Medicaid also can help with the cost of a nursing home, something older Americans and their families are often surprised to learn is not covered by Medicare.

States have different eligible requirements for Medicaid. If your income and/or your assets are too high for Medicaid's limits, you may have to do some "spending down" in order to qualify. That might involve paying off more medical debt, or selling your second home.

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