For some families, finding decent, safe, and affordable housing presents a challenge. Since most areas of the United States do not have rent control laws, affording private rentals in good areas can seem like an unreachable goal for some renters. As a result, many families live in high crime areas or in substandard housing.
To combat this, the U.S. government developed the Section 8 program, which helps low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford the cost of living, and provides incentives to landlords willing to work with local housing authorities.
History of Section 8
Public housing dates back to the Great Depression era when the U.S. government started building multiple unit facilities to house poor and needy families. By the 1960s, the federal government had amended the original public housing plan to allow low-income families to live outside of the public housing system in privately owned rental properties.
Under the Section 23 program, the government negotiated the rent between the landlord and the tenant. In the 1970s, the government dropped the Section 23 program and adopted the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, giving both landlords and tenants more freedom.
What Is Section 8?
The Section 8 program helps low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants afford decent and safe housing outside of the public housing system. With traditional housing assistance, many of these renters had to live in public housing facilities often located in rougher neighborhoods, with very few other housing options. Using the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, tenants receive a housing voucher they can use for any privately owned apartment, townhouse, or house that has qualified for the Section 8 program.
To start working with the Section 8 program, landlords and tenants must receive approval from the local housing authority. Requirements to become a Section 8 housing landlord and qualifications for renters vary by area. Approved applicants are put on a waiting list, unless housing is immediately available.
Public housing agencies can give some preference to families that are homeless, living in substandard housing, involuntarily displaced, or paying more than half of their income on rent. Landlords, tenants, and the public housing agency then enter into a contract that outlines the roles and responsibilities for each of the parties involved.
How Section 8 Works
Each year, every state receives a block grant from the federal government to cover housing assistance costs. The states use a portion of this funding to cover the cost of the Section 8 program and to pay for a portion of the tenant’s rent and utility costs. Usually, the housing authority will pay around 70% of the tenant’s costs.
As an example, consider a Section 8 tenant who has a monthly rent of $700 and averages $150 a month in utility expenses. Based on the 70% calculation, the housing authority would pay $630 of the tenant’s living expenses each month, divided between the landlord and the utility company. The tenant will then pay the remaining 30%.
While some critics frown on the use of government funding for public housing assistance, the Section 8 program has its advantages:
- Reduced Poverty Rate. With the high cost of finding an apartment for rent, many low-income families end up spending the majority of their income on rent. With assistance from the Section 8 program, a smaller income can stretch further and families can do more with their budget. In turn, this helps families climb out of the poverty cycle, reducing the U.S. poverty rates as a whole.
- Reduced Crime Rate. Some traditional public housing facilities, especially in urban areas, become breeding grounds for crime. Placing tenants in privately owned rentals keeps families out of danger and reduces overall crime rates.
- Increased Opportunities. Families who participate in Section 8 housing programs are frequently able to move out of impoverished areas and into neighborhoods with better school systems and increased job opportunities.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is far from perfect. This form of housing assistance comes with some key disadvantages:
- Burden on Taxpayers. Funding for the Section 8 program comes from tax dollars. Some critics argue that these tax dollars could be better spent on other programs that benefit the entire nation, like healthcare and education.
- Mismanagement. Since each housing authority manages Section 8 claims on a local level, execution of the program can vary widely from state to state, and even from city to city. Different management styles can lead to confusion and delays in the program, as well as unchecked approvals for both tenants and landlords.
- Issues with Accountability. Typically, multiple departments of a public agency oversee various facets of a Section 8 program. Complaints about Section 8 programs point to a lack of accountability and a lack of consistency, further contributing to problems including lost applications, a backlog of inspections, and delayed payments to landlords.
- Private Housing vs. Public Housing. Some Section 8 opponents say that developing mixed-income communities, fostered by Section 8 housing, brings down property values and increases crime rates. Poverty, say these opponents, hasn’t been solved by Section 8; it’s instead just been moved from the housing projects into higher-income neighborhoods.
The Section 8 program can benefit both landlords and tenants. With a Housing Choice Voucher, tenants can rent houses and apartments in safe areas they would not have been able to afford without assistance, and use their remaining income to pay for other necessities. Landlords have more tenants to choose from and therefore may have an easier time renting out their properties.
Do you feel that the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program accomplishes its goals? Have you used the Section 8 program as a landlord or a tenant? What was your experience like?