Pros & Cons of Section 8

If you struggle to pay your rent, you might consider seeking rental assistance. Easier said than done. Demand for subsidized housing, particularly U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs, continues to bust at the seams, leaving many low-income families empty-handed. While HUD's Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program presents attractive features, chances are you'll face significant obstacles to obtaining benefits.


HUD bills the Section 8 program as providing "choice." First, unlike the agency's Public Housing program, which consists of low-rent units at fixed sites, most Section 8 vouchers allow families to seek rental housing from private landlords throughout a community. While not all landlords accept Section 8 renters, this features surely expands possibilities for low-income households. HUD hopes that this will help deconcentrate poverty and provide better opportunities, employment and otherwise, for poor families.

Project-Based Assistance

Some Section 8 assistance covers an entire project or set of units. Unlike public housing, private owners, private management companies or non-profits generally own and operate these dwellings. When HUD issues a project-based voucher, HUD attaches the subsidy to the physical housing unit, not the Section 8 participant. This differs from tenant-based assistance, which allows a family to move from one place to another, while retaining assistance. If a family holding project-based assistance moves, they lose their Section 8 benefits.

Income Restrictions

HUD allows public housing agencies to accept families with incomes at or below 50 percent of their area's median income into the Section 8 program. HUD also directs housing agencies to set 75 percent of their Section 8 assistance aside for families with earnings at or below 30 percent of their area's median income. In many cities, particularly expensive rental markets, this could effectively leave some needy families on the sidelines. For instance, if a two-person household earns $25,000 a year in wealthy Orange County, California, it falls just above the 30-percent threshold as of 2010. Because HUD targets the neediest families, you may technically qualify for benefits but have a difficult time getting them even if you truly could use them.

Long Waiting Lists

Income considerations aside, most city's Section 8 programs trigger long or closed waiting lists. In New York City, for example, the housing authority has effectively shut the program down, as of December 2010, with no reopening in sight. In New York, the Housing Authority is not even processing wait list applications. Open or closed, many wait-listed families face almost impossible time frames before they'll get a Section 8 voucher. Among the worst -- San Diego, where the Housing Commission estimates the wait time, as of December 2010, at eight to 10 years with more than 50,000 households on the list.

Local Preferences

In step with serving those who need rental assistance the most, HUD lets individual public housing agencies set local preferences that give some families better Section 8 waiting list positions than others. As HUD notes, common preferences go to families who spend more than half of their income on housing and those who live in sub-standard housing. Many cities use these and other preferences. For example, in San Francisco, the housing authority wait list preference to people who live and work in the city, veterans of the U.S. military and Welfare to Work participants.