Everything I Learned About Section 8 That I Wish I Knew Beforehand

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Artwork: Robin Mead

Guest post by Camellia.

🌸 Vouchers are portable. If you have a voucher you can take it with you wherever you go in the United States. Sort of. Maybe.

🌸 In some states, landlords can say no to Section 8 applicants. Most rental ads will say no upfront, and landlords don’t even have to consider you. In other states, it is illegal to say no, but some landlords still find ways to avoid renting to voucher holders.

🌸 If your voucher is worth a lot in a high-rent area, you may think that if you move to a less expensive area that you will have more choices of rentals and maybe you could afford a nicer place. Let me break this to you gently. No. No. No. No. No. If you move to a less expensive area, your voucher will be worth less. (Not worthless, though it may seem that way.) Voucher amounts go by “fair market rent” which seems to me, in all practicality, to be pretty much the bottom of each rental market.

🌸 Where I moved from, the rental market was so tight they extended the amount of time I had to use my voucher by six extra months. When I moved to my new state, I lost those six months and the clock started ticking on finding a place within two months. If you do not use your voucher in the allotted time, you lose your voucher.

🌸 Because the housing market was so tight where I came from, I would have been allowed to use my voucher to rent a room in someone’s house. In my new location that is not allowed.

🌸 Different counties have different voucher amounts that you will qualify for and there is NO WAY YOU WILL KNOW WHAT THAT AMOUNT IS UNTIL YOU MOVE THERE! No case-worker will help you until you have moved to their county and your file is on their desk. You can call and ask and may find a case-worker who will give you an estimate, but YOU CANNOT COUNT ON THAT NUMBER. They use a super-secret-formula that still makes no sense to me. The portion of the rent I pay has gone up with the exact same medical deductions and in an area where the rent is much less expensive than the area I came from.

🌸 What utilities are or are not included in a new rental will figure into how much rent your voucher is worth. I paid all my utilities before, and in my current rental I am only paying for basic phone service. So . . . wait for it . . . I pay more rent now. The more utilities that are included in your rental contract, the higher the rental allowance will be, and your portion of the rent will also be higher. (This does finally make sense to me; at this time my monthly expenses are less because I’m not paying for gas and electric, water and garbage.)

🌸 I didn’t know until much later that the new county I was trying to move to could have turned me down altogether. They are allowed a certain amount of funds to use towards housing, and local residents will get first dibs.

🌸 No worker will care if you have found a home that is right for you, have gone through the application process, have had the landlord accept your application, and then found out that your voucher is not worth the amount of the rent. The first place I tried to rent in my new state ended up being $80 more expensive than my voucher allowance. I had tried so hard to figure out what my allowance would be before I moved out of state, but I was mistaken. First they will suggest that you ask the landlord to lower the rent by that amount. By $80?! Fat chance in hell he would do that, but I did actually ask him. Then they will tell you to try Craig’s List (duh!), and hand you a list of affordable housing units so you can get on a wait list (ah, thanks so much). Then you will go out to your car and cry and cry before you go back to sleeping on the floor in the living room of your daughter’s house.

🌸 You are not allowed to have anyone help you pay the difference between what your voucher is worth and what the landlord is charging. THIS MAKES NO SENSE if you have family or friends who are willing and able to help you out a little bit each month.

🌸 I could get a higher voucher amount (meaning I could rent a place that had a higher rent) if I DIDN’T USE MY MEDICAL DEDUCTIONS! I guess they figure your expenses are so high you cannot possibly afford a higher rent. Once in a rental, though, the medical deductions can lower the amount of rent that you pay. (I’m still scratching my head about this one.) At my old home, there was even a year when I paid zero rent and HUD sent me a check towards my utilities because my out-of-pocket medical expenses had been so high the year before, and I KEPT EXCELLENT RECORDS OF IT ALL.

🌸 Your voucher amount will be on the low end of what is available in any given area. The value is decided by county. The housing you can afford will most likely be in the poorer parts of the county. My daughter lives in a more expensive area (boo hoo), and the only affordable places were too far away for her to help me (so sad), which is why I had to go the “medical necessity” route (not my choice), and ended up in a rental in a more expensive part of the county (life can be so cruel sometimes). Really, and truly, I did not plan this.

🌸 If the subsidized housing is decent – available to low income, disabled, and seniors for no more than a third of your income – you can count on long wait-lists. You do not need a voucher to qualify for subsidized housing. There was a housing unit in my old home-town that might have been ONLY a six-month wait. I decided not to apply, though, when my google search turned up a continuing problem with bed bugs in the building.

🌸 Most of the subsidized housing will not be within walking distance of grocery stores, pharmacies, libraries, parks, etc. I wondered why at first and decided it’s because the land out in the outskirts of town is less expensive to buy and so that is where they build. There will probably be public transit available, but  . . . everything will be further away. Shouldn’t poor and sick and old people get to live CLOSER to services and shopping? If I were Queen, that’s what I’d decree!

🌸 I have not found HUD case-workers to be forthrightly helpful. You have to know the right questions to ask in order to get the kinds of answers you need.

🌸 I did not learn about “reasonable accommodations” from HUD. And I did not learn how I might be able to access these accommodations, as a person with a chronic illness, until I spent hours and hours and hours on the internet. Still, it was kind of a shot in the dark when I applied, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make my case worse if I failed.

🌸 To receive “reasonable accommodations” you need support from a medical provider. This does not have to be a doctor. The federal law is not clear on who exactly this is, but it is not necessary for them to have a medial degree. I was told initially that I would need two medical providers to say this move was “medically necessary,” but they only required one. I had to specifically request that my doctor’s office use those exact words – medically necessary – or their support would be discounted.

🌸 Your medical provider may want you to write the actual letter for them to sign. Do not make them have to figure out what to say; figure it out for them and they can reword it however they like.

🌸 You can request “reasonable accommodations” for adaptations not found in available housing. Once I got into this rental, I requested that air conditioning be installed. The HUD supervisor practically scoffed as she said: So you moved into a rental that didn’t have what you needed medically and now you want us to pay to have it altered? Well, yes, exactly. This was the ONLY place I found that accommodated me at all, because I need help with “the activities of daily living.” But . . . it doesn’t have air conditioning, and I cannot tolerate the heat. She told me no one had requested air conditioning before, but she shifted pretty quickly when I mentioned “as a disabled person . . .” and she sent me the Reasonable Accommodation form. I faxed it back to her yesterday. I let my doctor know that he may be getting a call from HUD again, and please use the magic words “medically necessary.” We will see what happens. It’s supposed to be in the mid 90s next week. Last summer, when I first arrived in this state, it got up to 106 degrees. This girl will need some cool air in her upstairs bedroom or she will melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

🌸 HUD inspectors may not actually follow all the rules. In my previous six-month rental, this worked against me. The house should not have passed inspection. Once it did, I had no recourse for what needed to be done. In my new home, there is no built-in heat source downstairs (there is upstairs), which is required. A plug-in portable radiator is provided. The inspector passed on it because this rental is in a remote location and probably “won’t be subject to a random inspection.” Huh? But I was very relieved to hear that. He passed on the unit at 3:00 on the Friday before I had to move. In two days! I am fine with the heating situation; I don’t do well with wall heaters anyway.

🌸 It can take several weeks for a new landlord to receive the first rent payment from HUD which has got to be discouraging to landlords who depend on the income from the rental to pay their own bills.


Read the Rest of Camellia’s Story

Camellia Finds A New Home with Section 8

Sample Disability Accommodation Letter: Higher Voucher

Tools for Troublemakers

Disability Support & Self Advocacy in HUD & Section 8 Housing

The Sleepy Girl Affordable Housing Survival Guide

Thanks for Reading

🌸 Art on this page by Robin Mead and Elizabeth D’Angelo.

🌸 Page Updated: 8/1/19

🌸 To get daily updates on helpful disability services, and low income programs, follow on Facebook: The Sleepy Girl Guide.

🌸 Please comment below with stories, ideas, questions or suggestions. Please let us know if any links on this page stop working. Please share this page with others by pressing one of these magic little buttons: 

8 thoughts on “Everything I Learned About Section 8 That I Wish I Knew Beforehand”

  1. If your portion of the rent goes up and your income and deductions have not changed, it may be because the Utility Allowance has dropped. Remember, the “30% of your income” is for Rent PLUS Utilities. So if your new place has a lower utility cost according to the Utility Allowance sheet, then you will be asked to pay more rent.

    When in doubt, ask for the Rent Calculation Worksheet. If you get one every year and each time you move, you should be able to track why your rent changes and whether it has been calculated correctly. (Rule of thumb: The rent you pay should be in the range of about 25% of your total income, +/- 5% for Disability Deduction, Utility Allowance, etc..

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  2. The paragraph in the article that is about “subsidized housing” waitlists and having a voucher to be sort of “pre-qualified” is incorrect.

    Subsidized housing is where the subsidy stays with the apt, so people WITHOUT a voucher can pay 30% of their income. The only way you can use a voucher for that building is if some of the units are NOT subsidized.

    Occasionally, there may be a mix of units in one building or complex. In that case, a few units may be Market Rate (no subsidy) or Tax Credit with no subsidy. If ALL the units (Tax Credit or not) already have a “Project Based” (meaning it stays with the unit) subsidy, then you CAN’T use the voucher there. (No need to, it’s already 30% of your income.)

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  3. Things I Learned About Section 8:

    – When you get a letter from your Housing Authority (pre- or post-Sec 8 voucher), respond, do whatever they ask, don’t miss any deadlines. They can be unbelievably obtuse, clueless, or lacking in compassion and you can end up in a fight for your life over your Sec 8. No matter what, DO NOT LOSE IT. It takes YEARS to get and it gives you a certain amount of freedom once you do get it.

    – The best, and in some high-demand, high-rent metropolitan areas the ONLY, way to find a rental within the voucher amount is to look for Tax Credit buildings. There will be an agency that handles these for the whole state. Find their website and see if it has a current list of all the Tax Credit buildings or call and ask for one.

    – Learn about the buildings by reviewing their websites, look for RECENT Google and other reviews to see if there are problems with the building or management, use Google Maps to see if there are buses close enough, where the grocery stores are, hospital if that’s a concern, etc. You can use Google Maps to zoom in and check out the building from various angles and even “walk by” using the Street View feature.

    – Tax Credit (aka LIHTC–Low Income Housing Tax Credit) is a program that gives developers/owners/investors a tax credit if they agree to only rent to people in or below a certain income bracket (usually 40, 50, or 60% of AMI–Area Median Income) AND they will have to keep the rent below Market Rate.

    – The rent is actually determined by HUD. They look at the Median Income and the Median Rent for that city or area and set the maximum rent for all the Tax Credit buildings (according to number of bedrooms). They do this once a year, around April, so that will be the time the landlord gets to (possibly) raise the rent. This will not affect you, however, so you do NOT need to “lock in” your rent by signing a lease (even though your landlord may try to get you to do it). YOUR portion of the rent will always be based on your income and will only change if your income or household size or deductions change. The voucher will pick up the rest.

    – Tax Credit buildings have their own set of paperwork to recertify you annually. It is a little less invasive than the Sec 8 recertification, but it has one extra rule–you cannot be a Full-Time college student. Part-time (<12 credits) is OK.

    – The secret formula for determining the maximum rent you can look for is so secret and so confusing that even the Housing Authority case workers can't figure it out, so they tell you to find a place first, then they plug all the numbers into a special spreadsheet or software that calculates it…which is backwards and idiotic and a waste of your time. But if you are very good at math and can follow all the steps, including getting hold of the HAs Utility Allowance sheet, you can figure it out for yourself. (I have just been doing that for a friend and myself to see if we can possibly squeak into a fancy building by the water which we both love. Ironically, I used to live there, many years ago, before I got on SSDI.)

    – When you first get your Sec 8, you are allowed to spend 40% of your income (instead of 30%) if you want to and that's what it takes to cover the whole rent, including the part paid by the voucher. This can be used to get you into a pricier place.

    – Your share of the rent (known as the TTP–Total Tenant Payment) is 30% of your Adjusted Income (except for the initial lease which allows 40% as above), but this means Rent plus Utilities (using their Utility Allowance sheet), so the amount you actually pay your landlord will likely be less than 30%. The Utility Allowance may be different than what you actually end up spending on utilities (electric, water/sewer, trash, gas), so you may come out ahead if you conserve electricity or whatever utilities you pay for. (Example: I think the UA for my apt is $45/mo for electric, but my actual electric bill is about $25/mo in summer, and maybe $40/mo in winter.)

    – Your apt may get a "HUD inspection" performed by the HA every year or every two years and they will schedule it around the same time as they do the annual recertification paperwork…starting FIVE MONTHS before your actual Due Date! So even though you just did all that when you moved in, you may be asked to do it all again in another 7 months. You can delay, but you'll need to wrap it all up by a month or so before the start of your Move-In month (that's the official Due Date, but they need time to process everything for HUD).

    – HUD allows for a total of FOUR MONTHS to find and get accepted by a landlord (you don't have to have moved in by then…the clock stops as soon as the landlord gives you the OK and tells the HA they have an apt reserved for you). Some HA's start you with two months and make you ask for the other two if you run out of time. Many are just giving the full four months when they give you the voucher. (If the apt falls through for some reason, the clock will start again.)

    – The Voucher Payment Standard is NOT the maximum Total Rent you can have…but it may be close.

    – If the landlord likes the stability of getting a guaranteed rent payment from the HA &/or they are desperate to get the place rented (during winter, for instance), they may give you a lease with a slightly lower rent if that's what it takes to be within the maximum allowed for the voucher. If they raise the rent later, that extra amount may be on you, though.

    – Places that rent to a lot of Section 8 renters may be a lot like the Public Housing or other subsidized place you may have come from. Just saying. Upscale places with late model cars in the parking lot tend to have fewer Sec 8 renters and fewer "bad neighbor" issues and more professional management and maintenance…in my experience.

    – If your Household Income gets high enough that 30% of it is very close to the actual rent, the HA may say you don't need the voucher and inform you they are going to take it back. If there is any chance your Household Income may drop in the next few years, or the area you live in has skyrocketing rent you will not be able to keep up with, do not lose that voucher. To keep it, you need to have a bigger gap between what your Household can afford and what the Total Rent actually is. So reduce your income (work one less day per week perhaps) &/or move into a more expensive place.

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  4. A huge happiness for section 8 is they have a homeowner buyer program. I own a home and my section 8 pays my full mortgage plus a large portion of utilities.
    This program started in the mid 90s and whole not simple, if you have tenacity and skill it’s doable.
    I took a home buying class five times prior to purchase. The govt offers these classes in many communities through free financial counseling centers.
    I put together a package of loans. There’s first time buyers grants and also block grants to community agencies helping people get housing. I got a 25000 zero interest loan to be paid back in thirty years.
    I got a Usda loan for 108000 based on my SSI and Ssdi income.
    It takes tenacity to figure out to put these programs together and utilizing every agency in the area related to home buying.
    I live in a 1200 square foot newly built 2012 home and interestingly the govt is paying itself and earning mega bucks in interest in my section 8 as I have a Usda home loan the section 8 goes towards paying interest on the mortgage.
    I did get 7000 from my mom for the house too but if no money avble it’s still possible to keep digging to find ways to get grants, subsidies and put them all together.
    I live in a great neighborhood with all middle and upper class homes.
    And my section 8 worker told me I’d end up having more money from section 8 this way. And I do.

    Also on a different subject of reasonable accommodation – you can extend the amour of time the county says you have to look for a home by asking for a lengthier time because of medical problems make it harder to have energy to look for place. I’ve heard this hairiness many times.
    Also if the rent is higher but it fits what you need medically sect 8 will pay higher to make a reasonable accommodation for medical necessity.
    For instance if your sensitive to mold and the only apartment you can find is much more expensive than voucher, with a doctors note of necessity section 8 can pay for higher rent. It’s the ADA law

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