Administered by Public Housing Authorities, the Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8 voucher program, allows tenants to take a voucher to a private landlord to secure low-income housing on the private market. Voucher tenants pay 30-40% of their income to rent and the housing authority pays the difference, up to a specific payment standard, directly to the landlord. Landlords sign a contract with the housing authority, and tenants have a lease directly with the landlord. This arrangement forms a three-way contractual agreement binding together the housing authority, tenant and landlord. Tenants are eligible for Section 8 vouchers if their income is 30% of area median income or below. HUD rules require that all members of a household be able to prove legal residency.
For a full list of HUD rules, see the HUD Housing Choice Voucher Program Guidebook. All voucher programs are also governed by the housing authority’s administrative plan. Seattle Housing Authority’s Section 8 Administrative Plan is one example.
Program policies require that voucher holders report changes to income and household size within 10 days to the housing authority. Other program policies require that the unit be maintained by both landlord and tenant to a set of federal Housing Quality Standards or HQS. This requires regular inspection by the PHA and compliance by the landlord. Any unit that will be rented to someone with a voucher must pass the housing authority’s HQS inspection before the voucher can be used for that unit.
Here are a few best practice tips for Section 8 voucher holders:
Waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers are extremely long. Often housing authorities are severely impacted by funding cuts and changes to the program at a federal level. You can read updated information on housing voucher policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Most PHAs only open waiting lists for vouchers every two or three years, and people are placed on the waiting list by way of a lottery system. Each housing authority has a different method and time schedule for opening and managing waiting lists; contact the PHA directly for more information. PHAs screen for tenant eligibility based on rental history, criminal background, credit and other factors. Most landlords screening criteria are stricter than the PHAs and typically, applicants must fill out applications and pay screening fees with the landlord.
Section 8 tenants have particular considerations regarding deposits to hold a unit before the move in. The landlord may not withhold a deposit or fee from a Section 8 tenant if the unit fails a tenant-based rental assistance program housing inspection by a qualified inspector. The landlord may also choose to no longer hold the unit for a Section 8 renter if the housing inspection did not occur within 10 days of the collection of the fee or deposit. If the unit fails inspection, after notifying the tenant that the unit did not pass, the landlord must promptly send the tenant the refund of the deposit or fee by mail with prepaid postage.
A housing authority can initiate termination of a Section 8 voucher for a number of reasons, including providing misinformation, failure to report changes in income or household size, failure to pay rent or utilities or eviction from the subsidized unit. Housing authorities may also terminate a voucher if someone moves into a unit that has Low-Income Public Housing or project-based subsidies. PHA’s will usually call tenants in for pre-termination conferences in an attempt to resolve the problem before moving to termination. If you are asked to attend a pre-termination conference, present all of your documentation in writing and ask for any policies cited or agreements made by the PHA in writing as well.
Section 8 voucher holders are entitled to a grievance hearing with an unbiased decision maker, with some exceptions. Washington Law Help has information on the Section 8 grievance process at Section 8 Vouchers: Denial or Termination of Benefits .
Policy changes have come about because of a class action lawsuit brought against the Seattle Housing Authority by Columbia Legal Services. As a part of the settlement, SHA agreed to change their policies to reflect the following:
Section 8 voucher holders do not have any additional protections against evictions, and receive the same eviction notices and go through the same eviction process as any tenant in Washington State. It is essential that voucher tenants remain in good communication with the PHA that administers their voucher throughout the eviction process. Inform your PHA immediately if you are unable to pay your rent. Send copies of any correspondence between you and your landlord to the PHA so that they are made aware of any problems that arise between you and your landlord. PHA’s have the right to terminate your voucher if you are evicted from your residence, and most often they will assert that right without question. You can request a grievance hearing if your voucher is being terminated because of an eviction, unless you are being evicted for certain criminal offenses. If you believe you are being evicted illegally, you can raise any defenses against the voucher termination in the grievance hearing. You can bring in legal counsel to a grievance hearing as well. For a detailed discussion on grievance hearings, see Section 8 Vouchers: Termination of Benefits. Your Section 8 voucher will likely be in jeopardy if you are evicted from your unit. Speak to an attorney for assistance if you are a Section 8 voucher holder facing eviction.
In some situations, if your landlord fails to bring your unit up to housing quality standards the PHA may reduce their portion of rent that they pay to the landlord in an “abatement” process. As long as you are current for the potion of rent you are responsible for the landlord may not evict you for non-payment of rent.
New federal laws offer protections for tenants and Section 8 voucher holders who are living in properties facing foreclosure. Tenants living in foreclosed properties are entitled to 90 days’ notice following the foreclosure date, and if they are on a lease it must be honored through the entire term unless the new owners plan to move into the unit. Even if the new owner plans to move into the unit, 90 days’ notice is still required. Also, the new owner is required to honor the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) contract with the housing authority to maintain the voucher. For more information, see the Foreclosure Frequently Asked Questions Guide, a Sample Letter from Section 8 Tenant to New Owners of Foreclosed Property and read the new law directly at Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act. Be aware that this law expires December 31st, 2014.
In the city of Seattle, Redmond, unincorporated King County, and Bellevue it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against someone because of their status as a Section 8 voucher holder. Landlords in these areas cannot legally refuse to rent to someone just because they use a Section 8 voucher to pay their rent. Landlords in these areas must offer one-year leases for Section 8 voucher tenants, and cannot charge Section 8 tenants a rental rate that exceeds the rate charged to a non-Section 8 tenant. However, landlords do not have to lower their standard market rental rates to make the unit reasonably affordable to Section 8 voucher tenants. Civil rights agencies enforce these laws. Find out more information at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, King County Office of Civil Rights and the City of Bellevue Development Services Department.
TU Campaign The Tenants Union is currently working to change the laws so that all renters in the state are protected from discrimination based on source of income or Section 8 voucher status. See Source of Income Discrimination for more information.
Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.