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What Is Section 8? – Low Income Housing Assistance

By Angela Colley

public housing single familyFor 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%.

apartment buildings color


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.

Final Word

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?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Angela Colley
Angela Colley is a freelance writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana with a background in mortgage and real estate. Her interests include animal rights advocacy, green living, mob movies and finding the best deal on everything. She blames her extreme passion for never paying full price on two parents that taught her that a penny saved is two pennies if invested wisely.

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  • MikeSTL

    Decreased crime rate is mentioned in the “advantages”, increased crime is listed as a “disadvantage”. The second one is the accurate one. Scratch that first one. I’m not sure what your resource was, but that sounds like a lofty and naive liberal fantasy. I hate to drag politics into it, but these types of programs (since The New Deal days) begin with the best of intentions, then quickly turn into a new set of problems. I am interviewing for a documentary about this very issue tomorrow. The title of the film, due later out this year, is called “Spanish Lake”. Check it out.

  • C25odonnell

    I have been trying to get section 8 for 3 and 1/2 years. I cant even get on a waiting list. As fare as I’m concerned it is of nooooo help!

  • Chantay

    How do you qualify for a voucher and where can you get it?

  • Lisa Morris Gabriel

    is there address in mesa,az 85201 to apply for section 8 I have look and look for it pls could someone tell me [email protected] my name is Lisa Morris Gabriel thank you!

  • Jenny

    Can anyone help me get in a waiting list for housing or even get a voucher for housing

  • Alissa

    I have been on the waiting list for nine years. I lost my job in July 2013. I need help now. It take ten years to be on waiting list.

  • Evil_Fluffy

    Section 8 might be well-intentioned, but it is encouraging irresponsible behavior. I pay my rent. I don’t care to pay (or help pay) anyone else’s. All the people who have no problem paying someone else’s way should be welcome to contribute to this nonsense. The rest of us shouldn’t have to.

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