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, but it may move you up the list a bit. It’s like being pre-qualified for a loan. 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.


Learn More

Read Camellia’s story of finding a home on Section 8

Learn more about Section 8 and other housing programs

 

 

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