The Section 8 Program is an initiative under the purview of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program aims to provide access to safe, clean, and affordable housing for very low-income families, those who are elderly, and those who are disabled.
4 Types of Section 8 Programs
There are four basic types of Section 8 voucher programs, each administered just a bit differently. We’ve listed them for you below.
- Tenant-Based Housing Choice Voucher (HCV)
- HCV Homeownership Voucher
- Project-Based Voucher (PBV)
- Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA)
The program typically issues vouchers that individuals can present to landlords who have agreed to be part of the Section 8 program. The program then pays the landlord directly for the value of the voucher, while the tenant makes up the difference. Though this is the basic model, housing voucher programs are administered locally by public housing authorities in a variety of ways.
The idea behind the Section 8 housing vouchers program is that families who are very low income, citizens with disabilities, and elderly citizens all have a fundamental right to safe, decent, appropriate housing that allows them to make a meaningful home. Under this program, HUD provides funding for local public housing authorities to help families find appropriate housing that will accept the program’s vouchers, and to verify with the landlord that the housing meets all standards for safety and cleanliness under the program.
The Section 8 program was originally launched as the United States Housing Act during the Great Depression, which catalyzed many social programs across the United States. The original U.S. Housing Act was written in 1937 and has been amended multiple times since then. The 1960s and 70s also saw an increase in federal funding to help make sure clean and safe housing was available for vulnerable citizens.
What Is Section 8?
The Section 8 program is actually two separate initiatives specified under the amended U.S. Housing Act of 1937. The Section 8 program formally began in the United States in 1974, with the creation of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Fun fact: the program is known as Section 8 because it is outlined under the eighth section of the Housing Act.
The two programs can be broken down by how vouchers are administered: under the Housing Choice Voucher program, vouchers are assigned to tenants and are portable to a wide variety of rental units as long as landlords agree to accept those vouchers. Project-based rental assistance, on the other hand, applies to a specific rental unit or units that can be rented by a landlord to low income tenants at below market value because the program subsidizes the remaining amount.
Section 8 vouchers generally remain active for a household as long as they need it. A low income family can exit the Section 8 program in one of three ways: They can choose to leave, they can be asked to exit the program because of non-compliance or they can be removed from the program because they no longer meet program qualifications.
The combined efforts of Section 8 initiatives represent the largest U.S. investment in direct housing assistance for eligible low income families. Because of these efforts, more than 3 million households can access clean, safe, and affordable housing.
What Is a PHA?
A PHA is a local public housing agency, which is a quasi-governmental entity – PHAs across the nation are charged with the day-to-day administration of the Section 8 housing voucher program. This includes processing of applications, verification of applicant information, administration of waiting lists, inspection of rental units, enforcement of rental responsibilities for both renters and landlords, and much more.
Each PHA receives federal funds from HUD in order to run its specific program. Each housing authority is assigned a fixed number of vouchers to assign, and each local PHA receives federal administrative fees for driving the program at the local level. Since the local PHA has the individual authority for administering the program, you’ll find that eligibility requirements and rental preferences vary widely from PHA to PHA.
4 Types of Section 8 Programs
Let’s take a deeper dive into the various ways a Section 8 voucher program can be administered. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know to understand the intricacies of each type of program.
1. Tenant-Based Housing Choice Voucher (HCV)
Under a tenant-based housing choice voucher program, the voucher follows the tenant. This is the most common type of Section 8 vouchers. With a tenant-based voucher, you can find your own housing, as long as your landlord is willing to participate in the voucher program.
Please note that participation in the voucher program is completely voluntary for landlords. There is no federal law that forces landlords to accept Section 8 tenants. However, many states and cities have enacted local laws that forbid landlords from denying applicants based on source of income.
Your housing authority may provide you with a list of approved housing options and landlords, but you are ultimately free to choose the rental unit you would like. Under this arrangement, the PHA will inspect the housing unit to make sure it is up to program standards for health and safety before approving the rental.
The PHA may also advise on what size rental unit the family should look for based on the size of the household. Under this type of program, if the family decides it needs to move, the voucher travels with them. The family simply needs to notify the PHA and landlord, then terminate the current lease within the provisions of the rental agreement. The family can find appropriate new housing that the housing authority will then inspect. In most cases, a family can keep the voucher as long as its PHA retains adequate funding and the household is adhering to the PHA guidelines for participation.
2. HCV Homeownership Voucher
In addition to finding rental housing units, some Section 8 voucher programs can also help eligible families find and purchase a home. The HCV Homeownership Voucher program was launched in 2000. Under this Section 8 program, families with a voucher can use it to help purchase a home and assist with monthly home ownership expenses.
Please note, though, that the HCV program is not offered by every PHA, and PHAs are not required to participate in this program, so it’s important to check with your local housing authority before assuming that this may be an option for you.
If this program is available through your local PHA, your household will need to meet certain income and employment qualifications. The employment criteria can be waived for households with elderly or if the head of the household is disabled. To qualify, you must be a first-time homebuyer and complete the pre-assistance homeownership and housing counseling program typically required by the housing authority. Individual PHAs may also have additional eligibility requirements. Roughly $17 million in vouchers is put to this use every year.
3. Project-Based Voucher (PBV)
The U.S. government currently funds roughly 2 million project-based vouchers, which differ from tenant-based vouchers since they are not portable and cannot move with a tenant who moves out of the unit.
Instead, each voucher is tied to a specific rental unit instead of to the eligible family. With a project-based voucher, a landlord signs a contract with a local PHA agreeing to set aside up to 25% of the rental units for Section 8 renters. Each PBV unit can receive funding from HUD as long as the unit is occupied by a family who is approved for Section 8 housing assistance. Initial contract terms may be up to 20 years, with an option to renew at the end of the contract period.
Typically, families using project-based vouchers pay roughly 30% of their adjusted household income in rent, while their voucher makes up the difference. The total amount of rent due is determined by the housing authority and agreed to by the landlord. A household’s adjusted income is calculated as total gross income, minus appropriate deductions for dependent minors, elderly or disabled household members, full-time students, some medical expenses, and some disability-associated expenses.
As part of the Section 8 program, HUD will annually assess the Fair Market Rent values of the area to ensure that landlords are charging the tenants fairly. A landlord cannot charge a Section 8 tenant more than what HUD would classify as a reasonable rent, and a landlord cannot accept rent outside the boundaries of the contract it signs with its local PHA.
While project-based vouchers are specific to rental units rather than renters, many times a PHA will convert a project-based voucher to a tenant-based voucher after a family has fulfilled one year of living in its Section 8 housing and remains in good standing with the housing authority. At that point, the voucher becomes tenant-based and may move with the voucher recipients if they decide to move to another rental unit.
4. Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA)
Project based rental assistance is not a voucher, but rather a form of rental subsidy. A landlord can rent a unit at a price below market value because the gap is subsidized by the Section 8 program. Launched in 1974, the PBRA benefits are assigned to a unit, not a renter or household. However, since 1983, this type of housing assistance no longer receives federal funding for new contracts. Congress was concerned that low-income families were being concentrated in housing projects in high poverty areas. However, roughly 1 million units across the country still participate in this program, either under their original contracts or through renewal of those contracts.
Section 8 Eligibility - How to Qualify for Housing Benefits
Your local PHA will determine whether you qualify for Section 8, based on a few different factors. The four main criteria for eligibility are household requirements, income requirements, citizenship requirements, and rental history requirements. If a household does not meet the terms of all four categories, it is unlikely that it will qualify for Section 8 voucher assistance.
First, your household must meet the PHA’s definition of a “family.” While HUD provides some general guidelines on these criteria, they are mostly in the hands of your housing authority. Your household can be considered eligible for HUD purposes, in most cases, if it meets any or all of the following:
- One renter living alone
- Multiple household members, with or without dependent children
- Household with at least one member over age 62
- Household with at least one disabled member
- Household displaced from its previous home due to government action, natural disaster, or other declared disaster
Section 8 renters also must meet income requirements to be approved for vouchers. In fact, income may be the most powerful indicator as to whether your application for a voucher is likely to be approved. Your PHA can help you determine the income limits and household size qualifications for your area.
PHAs typically develop three different thresholds for income levels:
- Low income households that earn up to 80% of an area median income
- Very low income households that earn up to 50% of an area median income
- Extremely low income households that earn up to 30% of an area median income.
HUD guidelines typically prioritize the extremely low income applicants on a waiting list, followed by the very low income and then the low income applicants.
Many sources of income and assets are considered when determining a household’s income status. Your PHA will evaluate hourly rates, salaries, overtime pay, tips, commissions, disability compensation, welfare compensation, pension fund withdrawals, interest or dividends earned on assets, child support, alimony, unemployment compensation, Social Security benefits, lottery winnings, and workers compensation benefits.
Size of family is also an important factor in eligibility. For example, a family of eight with a household income of $30,000 can be classified as extremely low income in some areas, while for an individual, the extremely low income level may be $15,000. By some counts, most households that qualify for Section 8 voucher benefits make less than $20,000 per year.
Additional eligibility criteria include being either a U.S. citizen or a non-citizen with eligible immigration status. Some PHAs may request a copy of your passport, social security card, or other appropriate documentation of citizenship. For non-citizens, accepted documentation may include appropriate INS documents that specify your immigration status. For households with members who are not American citizens and cannot show eligible immigration status, some level of Section 8 housing support may still be available. However, the amount of assistance received will be calculated based only on those household members with appropriate citizenship status.
Section 8 eligibility also depends on a household’s previous rental history. Your PHA will check with previous landlords to make sure that your tenant history matches the information you provided on your application. If you or a member of your household were evicted from a rental unit for a drug-related criminal act, for example, you will not be eligible for a Section 8 voucher. Any household member who has been convicted of producing methamphetamine within an assisted housing unit is also not eligible.
PHAs are allowed to designate certain preferences, which means they can move some applicants through the process faster than others. PHAs typically designate preferences based on factors like homelessness, a household paying more than 50% of its income for rent, or a household involuntarily displaced from its home. Families on the local PHA waiting list who meet preferential criteria can move off the waiting list more quickly than other candidates.
How to Apply for Section 8
You can apply for Section 8 housing through any county or city housing authority in your state as long as its waiting list is open. As part of the initial application process, your PHA will collect some basic information about you and your family, including data about your household income, the number of members within your household, any assets you hold, and employment information. The PHA also will verify this information with your employer, your bank, and any other appropriate agencies. Once the PHA determines that you’re eligible, it will place you and your family on a waiting list. It’s also possible that a housing unit is immediately available for you.
When the PHA reaches your name on the waiting list, it will contact you, and at that point, you will receive your housing voucher. Long waiting times are not uncommon, so don’t be discouraged if you have to wait. In some areas, PHA waiting lists are thousands of households long, and wait times of three to six years are considered normal. The demand for Section 8 vouchers often far outpaces a PHA’s supply – and by some estimates, only one in four households who are eligible actually end up with a housing assignment simply because demand is so high.
It’s important to note that you can apply with several PHAs at the same time, so you can be on multiple waiting lists to increase your chances of receiving your voucher. Each PHA has a different process for moving applicants through the waiting list. Some may use a lottery system, while others may prioritize those who are elderly, disabled, or lowest income.
In most cases, once you’re awarded a tenant-based voucher by a PHA, you can use that voucher anywhere in the U.S. But make sure to do your research about your PHA’s guidelines. In some cases, PHAs will require that a household be a resident of its jurisdiction for 12 months before you can use your Section 8 voucher for housing outside of that jurisdiction.
Once approved for your Section 8 voucher, you have 60 days to find an appropriate rental unit and submit a Request for Tenancy Approval. If you have trouble finding a rental unit, the PHA has the authority to extend this deadline.
After the Request for Tenancy Approval is received, your PHA will inspect the unit within 15 days to make sure it’s clean and safe and that the cost of rent is deemed reasonable. The PHA will confirm that the unit is eligible, meets HUD’s Housing Quality Standards, and is not subject to any other housing assistance program.
Rules and Regulations for Tenants
When a household enters into an agreement with the local PHA and landlord, the family is expected to sign an initial lease of at least one year. According to the landlord’s procedures and policies, the family also may be expected to pay a security deposit up front. Beyond these initial obligations, the tenant family is expected to submit its rent on time and within landlord expectations, and comply with all program and individual lease requirements. The tenant(s) must also maintain the housing unit in appropriate condition, and agree to notify the PHA if there are any changes in household status or income.
It’s important to understand both your rights and your responsibilities as a Section 8 voucher holder. Tenants who do not meet the program’s strict rules and regulations can be released from the Section 8 program. Violations of responsibilities typically include actions like participating in criminal activity within the rental unit, allowing someone to live in the unit without disclosing it to the PHA, providing false information to your landlord, and failing to pay your rent.
Once a household is removed from the program, it is expected to pay the full market value rental price for its housing, and the renters no longer will receive any type of government assistance for housing.
What Is Section 8 Housing?
The Section 8 housing voucher program provides a valuable benefit to America’s low income families and households with elderly or disabled members. If you think the program may be of benefit to you, find your local PHA and reach out to find more information about program eligibility, waiting lists, and special preferences for being selected. Safe and affordable housing for you and your family might be closer than you think.