For people struggling to get by on minimum wage, one of the biggest challenges is housing.
Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour, or roughly $1,256 per month. Most financial experts say an affordable rent payment is one-third of your income. So, in theory, a minimum-wage worker should spend no more than $418 per month on rent.
However, in most parts of the country, it simply isn’t possible to find any type of housing for this little. According to the Out of Reach 2020 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average market price for a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. is $1,017 per month. That’s over 80% of a minimum-wage worker’s earnings.
The federal housing choice voucher program aims to help low-income families with this problem. It provides vouchers to help low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled cover their rent costs.
What Housing Choice Vouchers Are
The housing choice voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, is the federal government’s biggest housing assistance program. Its goal is to make decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market available to those who can’t afford to pay market prices.
Through this program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) distributes housing choice vouchers, or HCVs, to help individuals and families cover their rent.
Recipients can apply an HCV to any type of dwelling they choose, including single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments.
The History of Housing Choice Vouchers
Public housing in the U.S. dates back to the Great Depression. Federal agencies funded the construction of apartment complexes, often called “projects,” to house low-income people and families.
Eventually, state and local housing authorities took over the operation of the projects. However, a series of federal departments remained responsible for funding them. For a few decades, housing projects were well-made buildings that housed people from a range of income levels.
Over time, both federal funding and building standards declined. The general public came to view the projects as shoddy, unattractive, poorly maintained homes, plagued by crime and fit only for the poorest of the poor. This negative stereotype wasn’t always true, but it increased public opposition to new housing projects.
In the 1960s, the government tried a new approach. It passed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, which created HUD. Section 23 of this act gave local housing authorities the ability to house people in privately owned buildings. To do this, it gave tenants vouchers to cover the difference between the market rent and what they could afford to pay.
The use of housing vouchers expanded greatly in the 1970s. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 created the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which aids poor tenants by giving subsidies to their landlords. By the 1980s, vouchers had become the main form of government-assisted housing.
How Housing Choice Vouchers Work
The housing choice voucher program is a partnership between HUD and local public housing agencies (PHAs). HUD provides federal funds to the PHAs, and they issue vouchers to help low-income families cover their housing costs. However, instead of giving these vouchers to the families, the PHA pays the money directly to the property owners.
Some vouchers are project-based. They cover all housing units within a given building for a given time. Any families living within that building pay only 30% of their gross income for rent, with the voucher covering any difference between that and the market cost.
If a family moves out of the building, it loses its voucher coverage. The PHA refers a new family from its waiting list to the owner, and that family receives the subsidy when it moves in.
However, most vouchers are tenant-based. They apply to a given person or family, who can use them to cover rent costs on any property that accepts housing choice vouchers.
The requirements to become a voucher program landlord vary by area. Among other things, the rental unit must meet the PHA’s minimum housing quality standards.
Once a family finds a home, the PHA checks it to make sure the home meets all requirements, including a reasonable rent cost. If it does, the PHA enters into a contract with the property owner that gives it the authority to make subsidy payments on the family’s behalf.
The PHA subtracts 30% of the family’s income from either the total rent cost or a standard cost determined by the PHA, whichever is lower. It pays the difference to the landlord. The family is then responsible for the rest of the rent.
If the voucher holder moves out of the home, the PHA’s contract with the owner ends. The family is free to move to a new home and receive the same rental assistance there, as long as it meets all the program requirements.
Who Qualifies for Housing Choice Vouchers
Each local PHA sets its own rules about who is eligible for housing choice vouchers. However, in general, all applicants must meet certain basic requirements.
HCVs are available only to U.S. citizens and specific categories of legal immigrants. The PHA can ask applicants to provide proof of citizenship or legal immigration status for themselves and every member of their household.
Mixed families, in which only some members are legal residents, can get limited rental assistance based on the number of eligible members.
Typically, to qualify for a voucher, a family’s income can’t exceed 50% of the median income in their area for a family of similar size. (The median income is the point where half of people earn more and half earn less.)
In fact, by law, a PHA must give 75% of its total funds to applicants whose family income is no higher than 30% of the median.
However, some applicants making up to 80% of the median income can qualify for aid. These include families who have lost their homes due to the demolition of an existing housing project and those who have opted out of project-based vouchers.
UD determines the median income levels and income limits for different parts of the country.
PHAs also check out the criminal history of all HCV program applicants. In general, each PHA sets its own rules about which crimes make you ineligible for aid and how recent those crimes can be.
However, HUD bars all registered sex offenders and people who have been convicted of making methamphetamine in public housing from receiving housing choice vouchers.
It also requires PHAs to deny aid if any family member is currently an illegal drug user or is abusing any other substance in a way that could threaten the health and safety of other residents.
On the other hand, HUD does not allow PHAs to bar applicants just because they’ve been suspected of a crime. Even an arrest isn’t enough. They must have either a conviction or a “preponderance of the evidence” showing they committed a crime.
Advantages of Housing Choice Vouchers
For low-income people in need of affordable homes, housing choice vouchers offer many benefits. They include:
1. More Available Income
Because affordable housing is so scarce in many areas, low-income families often have to spend the majority of their income on rent.
With a housing choice voucher, they can cut their rent cost down to 30% of their income. That leaves more money available for other essentials like food, clothing, and medication.
2. Freedom of Choice
Vouchers give people a much wider selection of possible homes to choose from than traditional public housing. Instead of having to live in a housing project that may be far away from work, school, or family, they can find a home in a convenient location.
This helps them cut the length of their daily commute, freeing up time as well as money.
3. Better Quality of Life
Traditional housing projects are often located in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates. This gives them a bad reputation, which in turn makes it harder to get approval for new projects in safer, more desirable neighborhoods. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps public housing unsafe.
Housing choice vouchers can allow low-income renters to find homes in safer neighborhoods with lower crime rates, better schools, and increased job opportunities.
However, as noted below, it’s often hard to find landlords in these areas who are willing to accept the vouchers.
4. Benefits for Society
Freeing up money in low-income families’ budgets makes it easier for these families to climb out of poverty. This reduces the overall U.S. poverty rate and the cost of social programs that help the poor.
HCVs also spread low-income renters across a wider area instead of concentrating them in high-poverty areas, which tend to suffer from higher rates of crime and drug abuse.
This reduces the number of children exposed to crime, drugs, and violence. Over the long run, it reduces the chances these children will have the same problems as the adults in their lives.
Disadvantages of Housing Choice Vouchers
Although housing choice vouchers have many advantages over old-school public housing, they also come with some major headaches for renters. These include:
1. Long Wait Times
In most areas, local PHAs don’t have enough funding to cover all applicants for the voucher program. As a result, applicants usually have to wait a long time to receive their first housing choice voucher.
In some areas, PHAs stop accepting new applicants completely because they already have more families on their waiting list than they can help.
According to Marketplace, in 2018, the average wait time for HCVs nationwide was more than two years. About half of all PHAs had closed their wait lists entirely.
2. Limited Availability
Although vouchers give tenants more choice than other public housing options, many tenants still have difficulty finding a home.
Under the program’s rules, people who finally make it to the top of the waiting list have a limited time to find a landlord who will accept their voucher. If they can’t, they lose the money completely.
In Los Angeles, Marketplace reports, 40% of recipients lose their vouchers because they can’t meet the six-month deadline. In Yonkers, New York, according to The New Republic, the deadline is only 60 days.
Moreover, most landlords who accept vouchers are in less desirable neighborhoods — the very places vouchers were designed to help tenants escape from.
3. Extra Work
Getting and using a housing choice voucher takes a lot of work. Would-be recipients have to go through a long application process and wait months or years for a voucher.
Once they have the HCV, they must search for a landlord who will accept it. Then they need to reach a deal with the landlord and have the property inspected to make sure it meets program requirements.
After moving in, they must keep the PHA updated on any changes in their family composition or income that could affect their subsidy. If they move, they must notify the PHA ahead of time and find a new home that fits all program requirements.
HCV program participants face less social stigma than tenants living in public housing projects. Since they’re in privately owned housing, most of their neighbors probably can’t even tell they’re using vouchers to pay for it.
However, according to Truthout, they can still face discrimination from landlords, who often assume low-income people make poor tenants. Many landlords refuse to accept vouchers. Others charge higher rents to people using them — a practice that’s perfectly legal in many areas.
On top of that, some renters also feel judged by their family, friends, or neighbors for accepting “government handouts.” This can add stress to their lives.
How to Apply for a Housing Choice Voucher
To receive assistance under the housing choice voucher program, you must apply through your local PHA. There’s a full list of all the PHAs in the country and their contact information on the HUD website. Contact your local PHA to find out whether it’s currently accepting applications and how to submit one.
When you apply, the PHA requests information about your family size, income, and background. Some PHAs accept this information by mail or online. Others require a personal interview, either in your home or at the PHA office. The PHA is likely to ask for documents to prove your identity, citizenship status, and income.
The PHA checks your information with other local agencies, your employer, and your bank to decide whether you qualify for aid and, if so, how much. If you qualify, you earn a spot on the PHA’s waiting list.
When your name reaches the top of the list, it contacts you and issues you a voucher. You then have a limited time to find a rental unit where you can use your voucher, get the property inspected, sign your lease, and move in.
As noted above, you’ll probably have to wait a long time after applying before you actually receive a housing choice voucher. However, depending on your circumstances, you may be able to shorten your wait time.
Local PHAs are allowed to give higher priority to certain types of applicants, based on the needs of their particular community. For instance, they may put people higher on the waiting list if they:
- Are currently homeless
- Are living in substandard housing
- Have been forced out of their homes
- Are paying over 50% of their income in rent
Make sure to give your local PHA as much information as possible about your situation so you can take advantage of any local preferences that apply to you.
The housing choice voucher program helps both landlords and tenants. It gives tenants access to better homes in safer neighborhoods than they could afford on their own, and it gives landlords a wider choice of tenants and a reliable source of income.
But despite these benefits, the program isn’t universally popular. For one thing, like all social programs, it costs money — even though it has faced steep cuts since the early 2000s.
Worse, local PHAs don’t always use the funds effectively. Mismanagement at the local level has contributed to problems like long wait times, lost applications, lack of support for tenants, and late payments to landlords.
Because of these problems, some critics argue the tax dollars spent on the program would do more good in other areas, such as health care or education. However, as the Federal Reserve observed in a 2015 working paper, research shows that moving families out of poor neighborhoods is the single most effective strategy for raising them out of poverty.
Many of the HCV program’s problems stem from lack of funds. Increasing its funding would probably do more to fight poverty than cutting it and spending the money elsewhere.
Requiring more landlords to accept vouchers would also help open up more housing choices for low-income renters and break up concentrated pockets of poverty in America’s cities.