The gap between soaring housing costs and stagnant incomes has trapped millions of American families in what sometimes feels like eternal financial stress. Households in the lowest third of wage earners spend 40 percent of their incomes on housing, with renters in that bracket spending nearly half their income to put a roof over their heads. If you and your family are struggling with rent or having a hard time finding a safe, clean place to live, there’s hope. The U.S. government offers programs that assist Americans facing serious housing stress. You and your family could be eligible for help right now and not even know it.
Administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Section 8 grants, now referred to as “Housing Choice Vouchers” but still more widely known by their old name, provide housing aid and assistance to eligible low-income families across America. The program covers a percentage of housing costs for the poorest Americans and reduces their housing expenses to the recommended 30% of income. The program has helped millions of low-income families and elderly and disabled Americans to find and keep secure, sanitary housing.
Like most Federal housing programs, the Housing Choice Voucher program is administered through local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs). You’ll find a link at the end of this article that will help you find your local PHA.
What Kind of Housing Choice Voucher Do You Need
Several different Section 8 housing choice voucher types are available. The two most common types are project-based and tenant-based vouchers. Tenant-based vouchers let you move into housing with financial assistance in place. If you change residence, the voucher is carried over and continues at your new home. Tenant-based vouchers let you find a home that you choose. You’ll negotiate a deal with a private landlord, and the PHA will pay part of your rent.
Project-based vouchers are only valid for one place, usually a government housing project managed by the PHA, and a set period. However, just because you have a project-based voucher doesn’t mean you aren’t eligible to receive a tenant-based voucher.
More Voucher Types
A variety of specialized programs serve households with specific needs.
Homeownership Vouchers are designed to help low-income families purchase a home of their own.
Conversion Vouchers offer substitute housing to families and individuals affected by demolition, disposition or the mandatory conversion of public housing units.
Vouchers for People with Disabilities assist low-income families caring for members with disabilities.
Family Unification Vouchers are designed specifically to help keep families together, should a lack of affordable housing lead to the separation of parents and their children.
HUD-VASH Vouchers help low-income veterans.
One of the most important pre-registration steps is figuring out what type applies to you. If you have questions, contact your local PHA. They are there to serve you!
Determining Your Eligibility
Determining your eligibility is the first critical step to finding out whether or not you and your family should apply for assistance. The local PHA determines eligibility, using gross income and family sizes as the primary determining factors. Section 8 eligibility varies from state to state, but most requirements revolve around income, the median income in your area, your current rent, your assets and the composition of your family. Here is a checklist to review:
You must be a US citizen or eligible legal immigrant.
You must earn, as a family, less than 50% of the median income for the county in which you choose to reside. Most applicants are closer to 30% percent of the median income, and most PHAs must provide 75% of their vouchers to families that fall into this income bracket.
You must meet all other criteria based on assets and family make-up.
Each PHA sets specific criteria for their area, so you’ll have to contact your PHA to assess your eligibility effectively.
Prove Your Case – Don’t Skip This!
Meeting the requirements won’t always be enough to get you accepted. You are responsible for proving your case. Here are the most important steps to take to ensure a successful review:
Salary, income, and asset information is a critical part of your application. You must have pay stubs from your employer and pay stubs for any additional working family member. You also must provide a written statement from your property owner that confirms your current rent. Both documents are required when applying.
Check your credit score. Landlords and other property owners WILL check your credit score before you can take possession of any Section 8 apartment or house. It is vital that you check your score and resolve any issues before you apply for rental assistance. Don’t allow yourself to be taken by surprise and be disappointed by the results. Get your free credit score and credit report now and take any necessary actions to improve it before it’s too late.
You should know what program you need. Each type provides support to different individuals and families. Some help that rent, while some are for those that already own their home. You must complete a tenant voucher if you are a renter or a property voucher if you own your residence. In certain cases, you may even be able to use the program to purchase a small home or to offset mortgage payments. Know what you need before starting your application.
Applying For Section 8 Assistance
If you’ve determined that you’re eligible, what’s next? Now it’s time to begin the actual application process. It may seem daunting, but breaking down the requirements and meeting them completely and accurately will get your application processed as quickly as possible with the best chance at success. If you make mistakes, oversights, or errors you could very easily find your application delayed or denied.
The process starts when you contact your local PHA and let them know you’re interested in applying for a voucher program. You will want to ask them if you can fill the form out online. If not, they will mail it to you, or you can pick it up directly from your local office.
If you have any questions about the application, don’t hesitate to contact your PHA. If English is not your primary language, getting assistance is even more important. You are welcome to complete the application in the PHA office where they can assist you with any questions. You can even make an appointment to meet with a representative that can help translate or just plain help you complete the application. Many applications are held up due to errors in the forms, so if you’re not 100% sure that you have it right, it’s worth using these services.
It’s Time To Play the Section 8 Waiting List Game
Once you file your application, your local PHA will begin to collect information on your family, income, and assets. The PHA will check this information with banks, your employer, and local government agencies. During this process, it’s important to understand the typical time for response to avoid disappointment. The bottom line is that you must be ready for a long wait. In some cases, depending on your location, there could be 100,000 applicants for a limited number of spots. In these high-density areas, it can take 3 to 8 years to be enrolled in Section 8 while on the waiting list.
If you are in an emergency situation, inform your PHA, which can prioritize and give preference to families that are homeless or living in substandard homes. If you pay more than 70% of your family’s total income to rent or have been displaced through no fault of your own, you could also receive waiting list prioritization. It’s important to speak to your local PHA if you are in one of these conditions and see how that might affect your place on the waiting list. Your PHA may also be able to help you find other assistance while you wait for a voucher to become available.
PHAs do sometimes close waiting lists and stop accepting new applications. You can still look for Section 8 housing in another county or even another state that is accepting applications. Do some research and find new areas you might want to live. A great place to start is the Best Section 8 Homes and Rentals Guide.
Most important, don’t lose hope. In most cases, you will not receive this benefit overnight. It takes patience and diligence and staying on top of your local PHA in the hope of acquiring more insight and information.
I’ve Been Approved… Now What?
First off, congratulations! You now have the assistance you need to help you and your family live a healthy and productive lifestyle. There are, however, some requirements that you must follow to keep your Section 8 assistance. These deserve the same amount of attention and upkeep you exhibited during the application process. Don’t risk losing the help you worked so hard to acquire.
If you’re in the tenant-based program, you will need to find an appropriate residence and negotiate a deal with the landlord within the time allocated by the PHA, or your voucher will expire and be given to someone else. This can be quite challenging in some neighborhoods, so be ready.
You must ensure that your dwelling meets government standards. You’ll need the proper thermal controls, sanitation systems, and running water, and there must not be any structural or hazardous damage. Be sure you understand and follow the rules!
If you and your family are renting a living space, you will be required to sign a one-year lease. The property owner is obligated to provide “safe housing” and a “reasonable rent.” If the property owner doesn’t fulfill this obligation, you should make a formal complaint with your local PHA.
You must make all rental payments on time, keep the dwelling up to standard and comply with all terms of your lease contract. Failure to make timely payments or non-payment could very well end up losing your Section 8 assistance. You would then have to reapply and go through the approval and waiting periods again.
Be Aware Of Discrimination
A landlord CAN and WILL refuse occupancy due to failure to pass background and credit checks but CANNOT reject you and your family occupancy purely based on your voucher enrollment. Similarly, a landlord cannot charge you more than a non-voucher tenant. If you believe that a landlord is refusing to accommodate you just because you are enrolled in the program, contact your local PHA.
Don’t Commit Any Fraudulent Acts
Fraud is one of the main reasons for termination of Section 8 benefit assistance. Voucher recipients who commit fraud may have to repay the funds they have received and can face probation, or even a prison sentence. The bottom line is, if you’re fortunate enough to receive assistance, don’t risk losing it by trying to take advantage of the system. You will more often than not get caught. Make sure you are well aware of what constitutes fraud:
Knowingly omitting or under-reporting income or assets from household income.
Transferring assets or income to achieve eligibility.
Falsifying or using false Social Security documents.
Inaccurate reporting of the number of members in your household.
Getting assistance on top of Section 8 without notifying the appropriate parties.
Renting out or subletting all or part of the unit.
Charging rent from any tenants who may be living with you.
You must avoid these actions and any other breaches of the rules, as the penalties are severe and the chances are that you will eventually be caught.
The Bottom Line
Housing Choice Vouchers are not an instant magic solution to high housing costs. The criteria are strict, the application process can be difficult, and the waiting lists are long. You should not give up on these programs just because they are difficult, though. This program has provided vital assistance to millions of American families, and yours could be one of them. If you believe that you could be eligible, do the work and find out more. You could find yourself receiving the help you need to provide a better life for you and your family!