What Does Section 8 Mean for Rental Housing?

Section 8 is the familiar name given to a program launched by the federal government to give rental assistance to the disabled, elderly and low income families. It’s technically the Housing Choice Voucher Program, provided for by an amendment to Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937. In this program, the federal government channels funds to state and local public housing agencies. The PHAs then select applicant families and individuals for rental assistance.

Section 8 Eligibility

Section 8 eligibility is based largely on income. The program is limited to families with incomes of less than 50 percent of the median for their country or metropolitan area. But there’s a catch. Many families who meet this requirement still might not qualify for help, because PHAs are required to provide 75 percent of their federal funding to families and individuals whose incomes don’t exceed 30 percent of the median income. If you fall into that 30 to 50 percent bracket, you might not receive help unless you're disabled or elderly. PHAs also are allowed to favor certain families -- those who are homeless, have recently been evicted, are living in squalor, or are currently paying more than half their incomes in rent.

Available Housing

You’re not limited to subsidized housing when you receive Section 8 assistance. You can select your own rental property, but the landlord must agree to accept Section 8 assistance. Once you receive a voucher indicating that you’ve been accepted into the Section 8 program, you then have 60 days to find suitable housing and a landlord who’s willing to accept the voucher. Suitable means you can't use your voucher toward a five-bedroom rental if you have a family of three -- it’s far more than you reasonably need. You must sign at least a one-year lease, which is a three-way deal between the PHA, the tenant and the landlord.

Housing Quality Standards

Section 8 won’t cover a shanty in the wilderness without operable plumbing. The rental unit must meet the PHA’s housing quality standards for safety and health. The PHA won’t take your word for the dwelling's condition – it will send someone to inspect the rental unit, and ongoing inspections may be required.

Rental Payments

Section 8 rules require that the PHA pay a portion of your rent directly to your landlord, not to you so you can transmit it to your landlord. You must pay the difference between the Section 8 subsidy and the total rent due. Your contribution toward rent and utilities must be at least 30 percent of your household’s adjusted gross income, and not less than $50 a month.