How to Screen Section 8 Tenants
July 5, 2023
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Screening Section 8 Applicants
As a landlord, you may have heard stereotypes that Section 8 tenants will damage your property, default on rent, or bring crime to your neighborhood.
However, it’s worth noting that these are all risks you take on when renting to any tenant—not just Section 8 tenants. As a Section 8 housing provider, you can avoid all of these situations just as you would with traditional tenants: by developing a thorough tenant screening process.
You shouldn’t use a different process to screen Section 8 applicants – in fact, you must use the same criteria for all applicants, or else risk violating fair housing laws. However, this article will present some tips and considerations for screening that are especially important when evaluating applicants in the Section 8 program.
Know Local and State Fair Housing Laws
A major component of Section 8 property management is knowing the legal regulations for Section 8 tenancies. Although Section 8 is a nation-wide program, many individual states have passed laws that influence how the program is implemented locally.
For example, U.S. federal law does not require landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, but many states and localities do. In many states (including California, Washington, New York, Maine, and others), ‘source of income’ is a protected class within state fair housing acts. Landlords in these states cannot legally deny a rental applicant solely because of their status as Section 8 participants or because they receive voucher income for rent from the government. You can of course still deny Section 8 tenants who do not meet your other screening criteria, but you must accept them if they do meet your typical standards.
Develop Screening Criteria
The HUD has their own requirements that tenants must meet to quality for the Section 8 program. For example, Section 8 tenants need to fall into certain low-income brackets and pass criminal and eviction checks.
However, that is not an excuse to forgo your own tenant screening for Section 8 tenants. You should still develop and implement your own screening checks to use with all prospective renters. Below are some examples of criteria you might include:
Income and Employment Verification
- The applicant has stable employment
- The applicant can provide paystubs, a job offer letter, or other documentation to prove their employment
- (for Section 8 tenants) The applicant has received a Section 8 housing voucher and has sufficient income to cover the remaining rental amount
- The applicant took good care of their previous rental
- The applicant’s landlord would rent to them again
- The applicant has no or few considerable debts that might interfere with rent payments
- The applicant has a history of making payments on time
- The applicant has not been convicted of a felony
- The applicant doesn’t have a history of frequent criminal charges that may create a threat to the health or safety of others
- The applicant has not previously been evicted for criminal activity, nonpayment, or other lease violations
You’ll find it helpful to use an affordable housing property management tool like Innago during the screening process to facilitate credit/criminal checks and help you organize the information you find.
Enforce Your Criteria the Same Way for Every Applicant
It’s important to note you can’t make your screening criteria stricter for Section 8 tenants or enforce different screening policies for them than you would for traditional tenants. Screening this way will almost certainly land you with a discrimination lawsuit, even in states that do not protect renters from discrimination based on source of income. You can and should, however, make sure your criteria are thorough enough to discern whether any tenant—including a Section 8 tenant—is qualified to rent your property.
One method many landlords use is to develop a landlord tenant screening checklist. This checklist can function as a tenant scoring system wherein you designate point values for each of your criteria and assign applicants a score according to the results of their screening tests. Scoring systems are a great way to keep things fair, concrete, and documented in case of a fair housing lawsuit.
Consider Conducting Interviews
One thing you might want to consider as a Section 8 landlord is conducting tenant interviews.
Why? There are several benefits of interviewing prospective renters. For one, it’s a great way to get to know the tenant you’ll be renting to and establish clear expectations. If you let applicants know about your screening criteria up front, they’ll be more informed about the expectations of their application and future tenancy.
Interviews are an especially good practice for assessing the communication skills of potential Section 8 applicants. Section 8 tenants need to be in frequent and clear communication with two parties—the landlord and the public housing agency (or PHA) from which they receive their housing voucher. There needs to be excellent three-way communication about the tenant’s income and employment status to resolve any possible issues or misunderstandings. Strong communication is the only way Section 8 tenants can successfully juggle two sets of eligibility requirements: yours and the PHA’s.
Just remember, you’ll have to conduct the same kind of interview (and ask the same kinds of questions) for all your rental applicants. As always, steer clear of any questions that mention or even implicate one of the seven federally protected classes (race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability), plus any additional classes your state protects, such as marital status, sexual orientation, or age.
Choose the Most Qualified Applicants
Although it can get complex to determine and assess a diverse set of criteria for your renters, at the end of the day, your job is to choose the renter who will be the best tenant for your properties—Section 8 or not.
Some landlords post on forums and social media about the need for aggressive screening of Section 8 applicants, including conducting home visits or even interviewing previous neighbors of Section 8 tenants. There are varied opinions about these practices, but again, they generally aren’t going to hold up in court unless you conduct the same home visits and interviews for all your applicants.
Plus, you’ll have to weed through what you learn to separate the criteria that actually matter from your opinions about a tenant or their lifestyle, which aren’t necessarily relevant to a tenant’s ability to be a good renter. Sometimes, less information is actually better. You don’t want to learn too much about an applicant’s personal life, habits, friends, or any other factors that shouldn’t be considered in the tenant screening process. It’s better to rely on concrete criteria than “gut feelings” and impressions.
Renting to Section 8 tenants doesn’t mean your screening policy should be any different for those tenants, but it does mean that your policy should be careful, selective, and thorough for all tenants. By implementing the tips and strategies outlined in this article, you can be sure to choose high quality applicants for your rentals in and outside the Section 8 program.