Key resources for struggling renters: Housing vouchers, legal aid

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With millions of families under threat of losing their homes this year, the Housing Choice Vouchers program, more commonly known as Section 8, will be a key lifeline for low-income families seeking affordable housing.

Securing a suitable place to live has long been a problem for low-income families in the U.S., and the issue has only been compounded in the last year by COVID-related financial upheaval. Many lower-wage workers were forced out of the job market as the economy contracted, which made keeping up with the rent even more difficult for many.

While it’s likely that the incoming Biden administration will extend eviction protections under a new coronavirus response plan, this would be just a stopgap measure rather than a way to fully address the low-income housing crisis.

In the interim, Section 8 can be a great resource for those who qualify. But keep in mind that voucher availability is limited and demand is high, so it may be tough to quickly get assistance with paying the rent.

What is Section 8?

The Housing Choice Vouchers program is a federal program that provides financial support to low-income families, seniors and those with disabilities. The program is administered by local public housing agencies (PHAs) and recipients can use the funds to subsidize their rent in private housing.

Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, said a key feature of Section 8 is that recipients can choose where to live rather than being limited to public housing project vacancies.

“It’s a really important program because it allows families to move to a neighborhood of their choice,” she said. “Where you live matters, your zip code is one of the most important predictors of a lot of aspects of your life, your health for example, your educational attainment.”

How can I apply for Section 8?

Because Section 8 is administered by local public housing agencies, the exact requirements and application procedures vary between municipalities.

Thrope said there are over 4,000 PHAs across the country, so if you’re interested in applying, it’s important to first find out which agency covers your area.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) there are a few national requirements that all Section 8 administrators must follow. The vouchers are meant for families with income that is 50 percent or less of the median income in their locale, and 75 percent of recipients from each PHA must have incomes less than 30 percent of the area’s median.

Beyond those general guidelines, Thrope said, individual PHAs have a lot of leeway in setting their own requirements, so it’s best to check with your local authority for more detailed information.

How can I use my Section 8 voucher?

“The voucher program is a unique form of federal assistance because it’s tenant-based,” Thrope said.

That means recipients can use the funds toward virtually any housing, so long as the local PHA signs off. Recipients will generally not lose the assistance even if they move. As a result, families that rely on Section 8 vouchers have much more flexibility to choose where they live compared with residents assigned to public housing.

PHAs will pay your Section 8 subsidy directly to your landlord once you’re in approved housing, but you will be responsible for paying the difference between your assistance and the market-rate rent on your home. Under certain circumstances, you can also use your Section 8 assistance to purchase a home.

Local PHAs will reevaluate a family’s income every year to make sure the support is sufficient. The agencies will also inspect every home using Section 8 funds annually, to ensure they meet minimum health and safety standards.

Drawbacks to Section 8

The main downside to Section 8 is that its availability is extremely limited.

“It used to be estimated that one in four, but now it might be closer to one in five families that are eligible for a housing choice voucher are able to obtain one,” Thrope said. “There’s not enough vouchers to go around.”

Families can be on the waiting list for vouchers for more than a decade in some places, and in cities with especially high demand, those waiting lists may be closed to new applicants.

“Families that would otherwise qualify cannot get one,” Thrope said. In the San Francisco Bay area, where she lives, the window for new applicants is usually only open for a short time, and often people have to apply at the PHA in person.

“You see lines out the door blocks long because of the value of obtaining one of these vouchers,” she said.

Alternatives to Section 8

If you live in an area with high demand for Section 8 vouchers and are not already on the waiting list, the program probably is not your most reliable option if you are facing eviction.

Your alternatives will also vary by where you live, but Thrope said you should make sure to apply for affordable or public housing in your area if you haven’t already.

For example, New York City occasionally opens low-income housing lotteries for dedicated units in newly-built developments across the city. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has a special program to help homeless veterans secure low-cost housing. And San Francisco has a program to help low-income people with HIV get suitable housing.

Above all, Thrope said, if you are living somewhere now, do everything you can to avoid eviction.

“Do whatever you can to maintain your current housing because if you are evicted or otherwise forced to leave where you’re living now, you will be hard-pressed to find other affordable housing,” she said. “If you owe money to your landlord, reach out to your landlord.”

There’s no guarantee they won’t evict you, but nonpayment of rent is the cause of most evictions in the U.S., and if your landlord is willing to work with you to find an acceptable payment plan, you may be able to avoid losing your home.

“The pandemic should not fall on the back of tenants alone. Landlords have a role to play there, too. Work it out,” Thrope said.

Bottom line

Section 8 is an important program for low-income families seeking affordable housing. For those who receive the vouchers, it can be a great lifeline. The program has its limitations, however: The biggest stumbling block is low availability of Section 8 assistance in many major cities.

Thrope said the Biden administration will have to push for more sweeping changes to properly address the housing affordability crisis in the U.S., but she’s optimistic that the new government will at least extend eviction protections for tenants, which will buy everyone some breathing room to work on longer-term solutions.

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Written by
Zach Wichter
Mortgage reporter
Zach Wichter is a mortgage reporter at Bankrate. He previously worked on the Business desk at The New York Times where he won a Loeb Award for breaking news, and covered aviation for The Points Guy.