How Your Section 8 Benefit Works

The three Section 8 programs discussed in this article — the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Project-Based Housing, and the Homeownership program — work in different ways. Here we’ll explain them.

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program

The Housing Choice Voucher Program (also called “tenant-based Section 8”) is the largest part of Section 8. This program helps low-income people pay for privately-owned rental housing. With it, you pay about 30% of your monthly household income for rent, while the government pays the rest. Once you get a Section 8 voucher, you can port (move) it to another city or state as long as there is a housing authority available to service the voucher in the area where you want to move.

What Size Housing Unit You Qualify For

If you apply for Section 8, qualify, and are approved for the voucher program, you will have to go to your Public Housing Authority for a meeting called the “Section 8 Briefing.” At the briefing, the housing authority may provide you with a list of available landlords in the area and inform you of the unit size you qualify for based on who is in your household and voucher size. The size of the housing unit you can get will depend on your situation and the housing authority’s policies, including factors such as:

  • The size of the voucher your family is issued
  • How many people are in your household
  • Their age, sex, and relationship to each other
  • The medical conditions and disabilities of household members

For example, if you have a disability and need a live-in aide or overnight support staff, you may be able to get an apartment with a larger number of bedrooms.

Special types of housing for people with disabilities

Most people use their Section 8 vouchers to get apartments or single family homes, but if you have a disability you can also use a voucher to pay for a group home, shared housing, congregate housing, a room, or an assisted living facility. To pay for one of these special types of housing, you will need to request it as a reasonable accommodation. If the housing authority doesn’t want to allow that, talk to a Work Incentive Consultant or to your local HUD field office.

Getting Housing

After the Section 8 briefing, you’ll have a limited amount of time to find a place to live, usually between 60 days (two months) and 120 days (four months). It can be hard to find an affordable apartment in such a short time — if you have a disability and need more time to keep looking for a place, you can ask for extra time as a reasonable accommodation.

Here are a couple of good websites where you can start your search for affordable housing:

If it is hard to find a unit within the price range given by your local housing authority, the housing authority may be able to increase your rental amount slightly. If you still can’t find appropriate housing, the housing authority can submit a request to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) asking for a “specially approved payment amount” that lets you get a place with higher rent. Don’t hesitate to ask the local housing authority to help you in any way they can.

Landlords are not legally required to accept Section 8 vouchers and some may turn you down if you want to use vouchers. However, it is illegal for them to refuse to rent to you because you have a disability. If you think a landlord is refusing to rent to you because of your disability, this could be viewed as discrimination and possibly a fair housing violation. You should tell the housing authority and ask for assistance.

If you think you have been discriminated against, you can also use these resources:

Once you find a place to rent that is affordable and will accept your voucher, there are still a few more steps. Many landlords will want to check your credit history, criminal background, and rental history. Also, the housing authority must inspect the rental unit before they will start making payments to the landlord.

Reasonable accommodations when choosing housing

If you find housing you like, but it needs some modifications to be accessible for you, the housing authority may provide higher payments to the landlord to help cover the cost of those modifications. As long as the modifications you need are reasonable, landlords must allow them.

What You Pay

Once you’ve got your apartment, you’ll have to pay between 30% and 40% of your household income for it. For example, if you make $1,000 a month, you may have to pay $300 each month for rent. The federal government will pay the rest of the apartment’s rent. You may end up paying a little less if you qualify for credits related to your disability or medical expenses.

How Long Section 8 Assistance Continues

Once you are getting a Section 8 voucher and have an apartment, Section 8 will keep helping you with rent as long as your income or other family circumstances don’t change. The only thing you have to do is keep your income, family information, and contact information up-to-date with your local Public Housing Authority. Once a year, the housing authority will inspect your apartment to make sure that it continues to be in good condition.

If you move to another apartment anywhere in the United States where there’s a Public Housing Authority, you can continue to get assistance from Section 8 without having to reapply.

If Your Income Goes Up

If your income goes up, you will still pay about 30% of your income for rent, but because you’re making more money, your 30% will be more. The Section 8 program will pay less.

Example

Last year you moved into an apartment that costs $800 per month. You used to make $1,000 a month and only paid $300 each month for your apartment. Section 8 paid the other $500 each month in rent.

Two months ago, you got a better job where you make $1,500 each month. Because you make more, you now have to pay $450 each month for your apartment and Section 8 only pays $350.

If you make enough money that 30% of your income is enough to pay the entire rent, Section 8 won’t help pay your rent anymore. However, if your income goes down during the first six months after you stop getting a Section 8 subsidy, Section 8 will start helping you with your rent again and you won’t have to reapply.

Example

You just got a promotion and now earn $2,700 each month. 30% of your salary is $810, which is more than the total rent for your apartment. Section 8 won’t pay any of your rent, but if your income goes down during the next six months, Section 8 may begin to provide assistance again.

The Earned Income Disregard (EID)

If you have a disability, you may qualify for an Earned Income Disregard (EID). That means that if you get a job, your rent might not go up at all for the first year after you start working. The EID is described in detail later in this article.

Project-Based Housing

With project-based housing, the local housing authority has contracted directly with the owner of a housing unit to make it available for people in the Section 8 program to live in. When one of these privately-owned apartments is empty, the housing authority will offer it to someone that is waiting for Section 8 housing.

Eligibility for project-based housing is the same as for the Housing Choice Voucher Program and the amount you have to pay for rent will be calculated the same way (you’ll have to pay about 30% of your income for rent). If you have a disability, you may also qualify for the Earned Income Disregard, described in detail later in this article.

The two biggest differences between project-based housing and the Housing Choice Voucher Program are:

  1. If you get project-based Section 8, you will be offered affordable housing in a specific apartment and won’t get to choose the apartment you rent.
  2. If you move out of your project-based apartment, you may lose your Section 8 support.
Special Purpose Vouchers for people with disabilities and others

An important part of the project-based Section 8 program is that many local housing authorities will save some of their project-based apartments specifically for people with disabilities, veterans, and other people in certain situations. Some project-based housing may also have supportive services already in place for people getting these “Special Purpose Vouchers.”

Section 8 Homeownership Voucher Program

The Section 8 Homeownership Voucher Program is a program that some Public Housing Authorities offer that allows you to use the money from a Section 8 voucher to buy a home or meet monthly homeownership expenses instead of paying rent. The amount of money that Section 8 will provide for your home will be the same as the amount you would have received for a rental.

Read the DB101 page on Section 8 eligibility and application so you know how to get Section 8. If you already have a voucher, check with your local housing authority and make sure that you can use your voucher for homeownership. If you want to buy a home and don’t have a voucher yet, apply for vouchers at housing agencies that allow homeownership.

Additional eligibility requirements for the Section 8 Homeownership Program

Most of the eligibility requirements are exactly the same as for the standard Section 8 voucher program, but there are a few additional requirements:

  • No member of your household can currently own a home or have owned one in the last three years
  • No member of your household can have previously received homeownership assistance and defaulted on the mortgage
  • You must attend and complete a homeownership counseling program
  • If you are not disabled or elderly, you must have full-time employment

Note that if you or somebody in your family has a disability, you may be more likely to be allowed to use your Section 8 voucher for homeownership if having your own home is considered a necessary reasonable accommodation.

Buying a Home

When you have a voucher that you can use for homeownership, look for housing to buy. As with finding a rental, your housing authority may set a time limit to buy a home. They may also put a limit on the size and price of the home you can purchase and there may be rules about the types of mortgage you can get. However, there is no limit on what neighborhood you have to live in.

Once you’ve found a home to buy, the housing authority will inspect it to make sure that it is in decent condition and meets all safety and regulatory standards. It will also have to be inspected by an independent inspector that you choose and pay.

If the housing authority says that it’s okay for you to purchase the home you found, you can proceed. However, make sure to get a “contract of sale” and give a copy of it to the housing authority. Check with the housing authority about what must be included in the contract. If you don’t give your housing authority a copy of this contract, you won’t be able to get Section 8 support for your housing.

Once you’ve got everything lined up and the purchase actually goes through, your housing authority will calculate how much you have to pay on your mortgage each month and how much Section 8 will pay. As with Section 8 rental assistance, the amount you have to pay will be about 30% of your income. As long as your income and family situations don’t change much, you’ll be able to keep getting Section 8 homeownership support.