In our last blog post, Yvonne Farrell, a very low-income tenant and senior living in Washington D.C., wrote about her experiences facing housing instability. Yvonne explained that she gets “more run-around and rejection than rent assistance” but she believes that “HUD, with the current focus on eviction prevention, is going to come up with a solution – maybe with Section 8 vouchers, which are not available in my jurisdiction – that will eventually solve this crisis.”

What are Section 8 vouchers? How do they work? And why are they so hard to come by?

“Section 8” refers to the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, the federal government’s largest rental assistance program for low-income households, including people with disabilities and older adults. The name “Section 8” refers to a section of the Housing Act of 1937 that authorized the government to make rental payments to landlords, though the HCV program wasn’t created until the 1970s. Unlike other programs, such as public housing or project-based rental assistance, HCVs are tied to the household. This enables renters to live in housing owned by private landlords and is meant to give participants more choice in where they live.

The HCV program is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) but managed at the local level by around 2,200 state and local public housing agencies (PHAs). Like many federal programs, the HCV program is complex, but it basically works like this: an eligible household – usually, one making 30% or less of area median income (AMI), though households making up to 80% of AMI can be eligible – submits an application for a voucher to its local PHA. If the application is accepted, the household is responsible for finding a landlord that accepts vouchers within 60 days of the voucher being issued. Once the household finds a unit with a landlord willing to participate, PHA staff visit the property to ensure it meets health and safety standards and that the rent charged falls under the “payment standard,” which is set by a PHA and usually falls between 90% and 110% of HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR), although PHAs can request approval for up to 120% of FMR. If the property is deemed suitable, the household moves in and is responsible for paying a portion of the rent – typically, 30% of its adjusted gross income – with the PHA taking care of the rest. A household can choose to live in a property with a higher rent than the payment standard allowed by HUD, though the household will usually have to pay more than 30% of its income toward rent. Because HCVs are attached to the household rather than the home, participating households can move to another unit with their voucher, though their new landlord must also be willing to participate in the HCV program and the new unit must be inspected to meet HUD’s quality standards.

That brings us to a central problem with the HCV program: due to underfunding by the federal government, only one out of every four households eligible for a voucher receive assistance. Most eligible households that submit applications to their PHAs for vouchers spend years – and in some cases decades – on wait lists. In many places, the wait list is so long the PHA does not even accept new applications. Unfortunately, that’s the case in our nation’s capital, home to Yvonne, where the wait list for the HCV program is tens of thousands of households long. No wonder Yvonne says that vouchers aren’t available in D.C. – practically speaking, they’re not an option for most low-income households across the country.  

Why then is the HCV program so underfunded? In part because of the way it’s funded. HCVs are funded through the annual federal appropriations process in Congress. While federal appropriations for the HCV program may seem to increase most years, the increases often only end up renewing existing vouchers for each PHA rather than creating new vouchers. To renew all existing vouchers, Congress must adjust funding to account for inflation, usually a moderate increase each year. Flat funding for HCVs effectively serves as a cut, reducing the number of households being served. In instances when Congress has provided funding increases to create additional vouchers, because vouchers remain limited the newly created vouchers are usually set aside for tenants already living in subsidized housing who need new housing (for example, when the public housing development where they were living has been destroyed or converted to private ownership), or to help house members of certain high-needs populations (for example, veterans, people experiencing homelessness, or people fleeing domestic violence). When genuine expansions of the HCV program do occur, the number of new HCVs is rather modest. For example, a little more than a month ago, HUD announced the award of 19,000 new HCVs to approximately 2,000 PHAs around the country. The largest allocation in 20 years, the expansion was a major triumph – but also a reminder of the huge amount of advocacy necessary to achieve even the most moderate expansion of the voucher program.

NLIHC is committed to advocating for the highest possible funding for vouchers in the appropriations process each year. Join us in calling on Congress to fully fund the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program to renew all existing contracts and to expand HCVs to an additional 140,000 households in fiscal year 2023.

Senior renters and very low-income tenants like Yvonne need help now, and shouldn’t have to wait years to access Section 8 vouchers. Congress needs to expand funding for the HCV program to ensure that every renter, regardless of income, has access to a safe, affordable, accessible home in a community of their choice.