Section 8 Vouchers
1) Program Overview
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:
- Always document your communications in writing to the housing authority. Make sure they are stamped by the PHA on the date they are received and placed into your file. You can keep copies in your own file at home as well. It can be difficult to get in touch with your case manager because they are often working with hundreds of tenants.
- Always send copies of communications to your landlord to the housing authority. It is very important for the PHA to be aware of repair requests you make and any problems you are having with the landlord.
- You must notify the PHA in writing of any changes to your household size or income within 10 days. Failure to do so may result in the termination of your voucher.
- You can get access to your file at any time by making a written request to your Section 8 case manager.
- Report to the housing authority immediately if your landlord is asking you to make side payments above and beyond the rent amount designated the housing authority. This is fraud and the PHA can take action to protect your voucher.
- It is also a good idea to document the condition of your unit when you move in and move out and to send copies to the housing authority to keep in your file. You may also request copies of the Housing Quality Standards inspection from the housing authority to prove the condition of your unit at move-out.
- If the PHA decides to “abate” or hold back the portion of rent they pay to the landlord in order to get the landlord to comply with their obligations, always continue to pay your portion of the rent payment. As long as you are current in your portion of the rent, the landlord cannot evict you for non-payment, even if the PHA’s portion is being withheld.
2) Waiting List and Application Process
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.
3) Holding Deposits for Section 8 Tenants
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.
4) Voucher Terminations
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 .
- Grievance hearings must be taken extremely seriously. Your housing is at stake, and the housing authority will make a case against you that your voucher should be terminated. If you lose your voucher, you will be required to pay the full amount of rent due on your rental agreement and will be vulnerable to eviction.
- You can bring documentation to support your position to the hearing in the form of paperwork and written testimony from witnesses. You can also bring witnesses, advocates and legal representation with you into the hearing to support your case.
- It is a good idea to secure legal representation to go with you into the hearing. Northwest Justice Project, Legal Action Center and the CLEAR line are the best resources for representation in subsidy terminations. See Legal Assistance Guide for information and contact information.
- Voucher termination notices must be in writing and you must be given an opportunity to request a grievance hearing in most cases.
- All grievance hearing requests must be in writing and must be submitted 10 days from the notice of termination. You can find a sample Sample Letter: Section 8 Grievance Hearing Request here.
- In your request, you can ask to see a copy of your file and all the information that is to be used against you at the termination hearing. This request must be made at least three days before the scheduled hearing date. The housing authority may also ask you to provide the materials you will use in your defense. This request must also be made at least three days before the hearing date.
- If you need or want an interpreter, the housing authority will provide one at their expense. Make this a part of your written request.
- You can also ask for the hearing to be tape recorded, and for the PHA to provide you with a copy of the tape after the hearing. They may charge you the cost of the tape.
- You can ask to reschedule the hearing if you need more time to prepare or in order to secure legal representation. Most housing authorities require that you give them at least 24 hours’ notice and only allow you to reschedule once.
- Survivors of domestic violence cannot lose their Section 8 vouchers as a consequence of the abuse. See Landlord/Tenant Issues For Survivors of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and/or Stalking.
- Section 8 tenants can also request grievance hearings for rent calculation questions, requests to add household members or other PHA decisions. The PHA does not have to provide grievance hearing for all issues, including for tenants who are contesting PHA policy, tenants who are contesting the PHA’s decision not to approve a unit or lease. Contact the PHA and an attorney if you are unsure whether or not you can request a grievance hearing.
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 can add minors to their vouchers without proof of court awarded custody.
- SHA must provide tenants with a notice of opportunity for judicial review following an adverse termination hearing decision.
- Vouchers holders can receive an exception to the 15 day limit on guests. This includes having related adults stay in the household. The guest would then not be “unauthorized.”
- Pre-termination conference are now required before a termination can move forward, and must include discussion of possible reasonable accommodations options.
- A correction of SHA’s definition of disability to include temporary disabilities and conform with applicable laws.
5) Section 8 Voucher Evictions
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.
6) Foreclosure Protections for Section 8 Voucher Tenants
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.
7) Discrimination Against Voucher Tenants
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.