Affordable Housing / Section 8

How Does Section 8 Housing Work for Tenants?

July 5, 2023

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A Tenant’s Guide To The Section 8 Program

Does rent consume a massive amount of your income each month and year? With rent hikes easily outpacing wage increases in many cities, it can start to feel like you’ll never get ahead enough to escape a rent-burdened lifestyle. 

If you make 30% or less of the median income for your area, you could be eligible for a voucher program that can help—Section 8. Section 8 is the federal government’s major program to help families find safe and sanitary housing. The program supports low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities by providing rent subsidies for safe, decent, and affordable housing in the private marketplace. 

As a tenant interested in receiving housing assistance through the Section 8 program, you may have a lot of questions: How do I know if I’m eligible for the program? Who should I call to apply? When will I know if I’ve received a housing choice voucher? We’ll answer these questions and others in this article about how to get started with the Section 8 program as a tenant seeking safe rental housing.

Step 1: Determine Your Eligibility 

Not every low-income family is eligible for Section 8 (also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program). Before you apply to the program, your first step is to determine if you meet the government’s requirements for the program. These are determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, or the HUD.  

There are four main criteria for Section 8: 

  1. You must meet the HUD’s definition of a family. A family can be a single person or group of people, with or without children. Elderly families can also qualify. See our article about eligibility for more information about this requirement. 
  1. You must meet the income limits for your area and household size. In general, eligible low income families must make less than 50% of the median income for their area. The HUD uses your Adjusted Gross Income (or AGI), which is your wages, salary, and/or tips minus certain deductions like alimony payments or student loan interest. You can use this online tool to find your area’s median income, and this calculator to determine your AGI.   
  1. You must be a U.S. citizen or have eligible immigration status. If your family is a mixed family (including some members who meet this requirement or others who don’t), you are still eligible for prorated assistance. 
  1. You must not have been evicted for drug-related criminal activity in the past. If you have an eviction on your record for illegal drug activity, you are not eligible for Section 8. 

If you don’t meet one of these Section 8 qualifications, you won’t be eligible for housing choice vouchers through the Section 8 program. However, you still might be eligible for other government-subsidized affordable housing, so don’t overlook public housing or other subsidized housing projects. 

Step 2: Find Your Local Public Housing Agency 

After you’ve confirmed your eligibility, the next step is to find and reach out to your local public housing agency (PHA). Public housing agencies (PHAs) are responsible for administering the program and distributing vouchers in their jurisdiction. Each PHA does things a little differently, so make sure you get in touch with the right people to fully understand the process where you’re located. 

You can find your local PHA and their contact information on this HUD site. When you call, ask first whether they are currently accepting new applications, as some PHAs have had to temporarily close their waitlists due to the high volume of applications exceeding the available resources. 

Step 3: Apply to the Program 

If their waitlist is open, the PHA will send you information and instructions about applying to the Section 8 program. In addition to a paper or digital application, you may be invited to attend a briefing with a PHA official, who might verify your eligibility for the program, explain how the program works, or talk you though the available options.  

Step 4: Join the Waitlist 

After your application is accepted, you’ll then join your PHA’s Section 8 waitlist. Since there are usually more families in need of assistance than there are available vouchers, you may have to wait a long time to receive a voucher, anywhere from several months to several years.  

The process of voucher distribution varies across different PHAs. PHAs only receive a set amount of funding from the HUD to distribute as vouchers, so families on the waitlist need to wait until funds are available for them. PHAs often prioritize families most in need of housing on the waitlist, such as families who are currently homeless or at imminent risk of eviction. In other areas, applicants are selected to receive vouchers by a lottery system. Applicants can usually view their Section 8 waiting list status online to keep track of when they might receive a voucher. 

Step 5: Receive a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) 

When your application reaches the top of the wait list, the PHA will inform you by mail or email. You’ll be issued a Housing Choice Voucher, or HCV. A Section 8 voucher is typically good for up to 70% of your housing costs (rent and utilities), but the specific contract and amount of your housing assistance payment will be determined once you find a property to rent. Section 8 participants generally pay 30% of their income toward rent (or less for very low income families), and the voucher covers the remaining amount.  

Your new voucher is only active for 120 days, so you’ll only have around four months to find suitable housing. Before you receive it, you may be required to fill out more paperwork or meet again with a PHA official.  

Step 6: Find a Rental and Connect with the Landlord 

After receiving your voucher, you should start the search for a suitable housing unit on the private market immediately. Remember that you only have 120 days to find a rental unit to apply your voucher toward. This may seem like plenty of time, but depending on the season and availability, it may be less time than you think.  

Vouchers can be applied toward almost any kind of privately-owned property, from multi-family apartment buildings to duplexes to single-family homes. One of the greatest benefits of the Section 8 program is that you get to choose where you live—you don’t have to live in a designated neighborhood or community to receive the subsidy. However, while you can theoretically rent anywhere with availability, it may be difficult in practice to find a landlord willing to accept your voucher.  

Some states have laws that protect tenants from discrimination based on ‘source of income.’ In these states, a landlord cannot legally deny you for being on Section 8 as long as you meet all their typical criteria. In these states, a landlord who denies your application must give you a concrete reason why you did not meet their typical screening criteria (e.g., “credit too low” or “prior eviction on record”) — they cannot state your Section 8 status as the reason. 

In other states, however, landlords are not required to accept Section 8 vouchers and are free to deny your request based on the source of your income. To mitigate this challenge, many PHAs keep lists of Section 8-friendly properties or landlords who have accepted vouchers in the past. Ask your PHA if they have such a list, or filter online listings for “Section 8 friendly” rentals in your area. Additionally, sure you know which fair housing protections your state offers so you know your rights when it comes to housing discrimination

Step 7: Wait for Landlord Approval and PHA Rent Negotiations 

Before you can sign a lease with your new landlord, they will need to apply to become a Section 8 housing provider if they haven’t done so before. This process involves the landlord getting the eligible family’s housing unit inspected by a PHA officer to ensure that it is in good condition before you move in. Don’t be surprised if this step takes some time—landlords often need to get more than one inspection. They’ll also need to submit a Request for Tenancy Approval (RFTA) form on your behalf, which essentially lets the PHA know which property you’ve chosen and would like to apply your voucher to.  

Once it’s approved, the PHA and the landlord will enter negotiations about the rental rate. The final rate will consider your income, the landlord’s typical asking rate, and the fair market rent (FMR) in the area.  

Step 8: Sign a Lease 

Once a rate has been finalized, the next step is to sign a lease. Like any other lease, it will include the terms and conditions of your residency at the unit, such as: 

  • Paying your portion of the rent on time 
  • Not damaging the property 
  • Caring for your unit and keeping it clean 
  • Informing the landlord of any health, safety, or maintenance concerns 
  • Respecting other tenants and common areas 

You may also be asked to pay a security deposit at this time. Be aware that your Section 8 voucher does not cover security deposits (or any other fees besides rent and utilities). Ask your landlord about any deposits and fees (e.g., pet fees) as early as possible so you know what is expected up front. 

Step 9: Know the Rules to Maintain Eligibility 

At this point, you’ve successfully navigated the Section 8 program and moved into your first Section 8 rental. The PHA will let you know how much of the rent you are responsible for, and your landlord will likely send you monthly invoices so you can write them a check, send cash (if they accept it), or submit your payment online on a tenant portal. Housing assistance payments will be sent on your behalf to your landlord to cover the remainder of the rent. You can take your voucher with you if you decide to move and apply to any other property, so long as the landlord accepts it. 

However, in order to keep your voucher, you’ll need to adhere to some rules and regulations.  Any of the following may cause you to lose your Section 8 voucher: 

  • Eviction for nonpayment 
  • Eviction for drug-related offenses 
  • Lying on your Section 8 application 
  • Criminal activity or alcohol abuse 
  • Failing to maintain the unit 
  • Allowing an unapproved resident to move in 

Here’s a summary of the Section 8 rules for tenants. 

It’s also possible that the PHA will stop sending voucher payments if your landlord does not maintain the property or allow it to be inspected annually. Landlords are required to maintain Section 8 occupancy standards, and if they don’t, the PHA may not send the promised voucher payments. Unfortunately, this circumstance is largely outside your control. Your best strategy against this is to inform your landlord promptly of any maintenance problems. Otherwise, you’ll likely have to find a new place to live with a landlord who takes better care of their property. 

Conclusion 

Lack of understanding about the Section 8 program is often the biggest hurdle to participating for both landlords and tenants. Hopefully this article has helped you understand where to start if you’re interested in getting started with this program.   

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