HUD uses the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program to provide subsidized rental opportunities to eligible low-income families. Unlike HUD's public housing program, Section 8 allows voucher holders to seek market-rate units from private landlords. This "choice," however, triggers needy families to seek assistance in droves, prompting housing agencies to use waiting lists in most cities. If you're savvy, you might be able to improve your waiting-list position and maintain the best possible situation once you secure benefits.
Ask About Preferences
While you'll encounter Section 8 waiting lists in most cities, you might be able to get yourself placed ahead of other families. HUD gives local housing agencies the discretion to set their own waiting-list preferences. Common preferences go to homeless families, persons living in poor-quality housing, families who spend more than half of their earnings on housing and those displaced due to government action, a disaster or another factor beyond their control. The San Francisco Housing Authority, for example, uses some of these as first-tier preferences. It also considers secondary preferences, including veteran status and participation in Welfare to Work programs.
Level With Landlords
Not all landlords openly advertise that they accept Section 8 tenants. If you find a unit you like, take a straightforward approach with the landlord. Educate him about how Section 8 works, particularly that the local housing agency pays him a majority of your rent each month, guaranteed, and that it also provides free inspections of his property annually. If he's concerned about your low income relative to other applicants, explain that he should base your ability to pay on the actual amount of the rent you'll be paying, not what he's charging. Most states prohibit landlords from rejecting a tenant just because they receive subsidized rental assistance.
Find a Great Place
Just because you receive federal help to pay the rent doesn't mean you have to settle for less. That's a key point of the Section 8 program — you don't have to settle. HUD's primary aim is to give low-income families the opportunity to escape concentrations of poverty and find higher-quality market-rate housing in good neighborhoods. Ask your housing agency what the fair market rent is for the area and the unit size HUD permits you to rent. Try to stay around this figure. You can exceed it — however, HUD makes you responsible for all rent above its fair market rate, just as long as your share doesn't exceed 40 percent of your income.
You Can Move
Once you secure Section 8 benefits, you can keep them, as long as HUD doesn't terminate them due to something you did wrong, as long as you remain eligible. If you need to relocate or simply wish to move to a better neighborhood, you can. Make sure you properly end your lease with your landlord and then ask your housing agency about portability procedures. A representative from your housing agency contacts the housing agency that covers the area you wish to move to and facilitates the entire process for you. The only way you can't take Section 8 benefits with you is if you have project-based assistance, where HUD attaches the subsidy to a specific dwelling, not the resident.
As a writer since 2002, Rocco Pendola has published numerous academic and popular articles in addition to working as a freelance grant writer and researcher. His work has appeared on SFGate and Planetizen and in the journals "Environment & Behavior" and "Health and Place." Pendola has a Bachelor of Arts in urban studies from San Francisco State University.