How Section 8 Housing Works

You've worked hard all your life, but the wage you earn is just not enough to pay the bills. Rising food, energy and health care expenses have taken a large chunk of your take-home pay. And your landlord just raised your rent. If something doesn't change soon, you won’t be able to pay the rent at all. What do you do?

Couple living in FEMA trailer in New Orleans
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Hurricane Katrina destroyed many New Orleans affordable housing units in 2005. Shortages of such units caused rents to skyrocket and the homeless population to soar. Many low-income residents were left to live in temporary trailers for nearly three years.

Millions of American families find themselves in similar situations today. Their jobs simply don't pay enough to cover their housing expenses. As a result, many of them have sought help from the federal government's Housing Voucher Program, most commonly referred to as Section 8.


Severe Housing Assistance Needs

HUD reported to Congress in 2005 that nearly 6 million American renter households not receiving public housing assistance have "worst case housing needs." A vast majority of these households have experienced "severe rent burden," which HUD defines as paying greater than 50 percent of one's gross income for rent. Others lived in substandard buildings [source: HUD].

Section 8 is a federal housing assistance program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds and administers it. About 2,400 public housing agencies (PHAs) actually run the program at the local level. Groups targeted by Section 8 include low-income families with children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In this article, we'll provide a short history of Section 8. Then we'll take a look at what it takes to qualify for assistance and how to apply for it.