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.



The Section 8 program has its roots in the Great Depression. In 1937, Congress passed the U.S. Housing Act, which represented the beginning of federal housing assistance in the United States. It provided funds to develop high-quality public housing units for low-income tenants. Local public housing authorities maintained and managed the units.

In 1961, the Housing Act was amended to create the Section 23 Leased Housing Program. Under this program, qualified low-income tenants were placed in private units leased by local housing authorities. Tenants paid a portion of the rent, and the housing authorities paid the difference between what the tenants paid and what the building's owner might have received in the open market. The housing authorities also maintained the buildings.

The Act was amended again in 1974 to create Section 8. This new law signified a switch in focus. Instead of developing and managing public housing, it sought to help low-income people who were spending too large a percentage of their earnings on housing. Federal funds now paid a share of rent in units renters chose on the open market. Since 1974, legislation has refined and restructured the Section 8 program several times.

Foreclosure sign in front of home in Stockton, Calif.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Stockton, Calif. leads the nation in foreclosures. One in 30 homes there are in foreclosure, nearly seven times the national average. Foreclosures have exacerbated the already high demand for federal housing assistance.

Today, people who qualify for Section 8 assistance receive a voucher that pays for about 70 percent of rent and utilities. The renter is then responsible for paying the remaining 30 percent. Recipients may choose to live wherever they want, as long as the total rent falls within standards set by HUD.

The voucher program currently helps about 2 million American households pay rent. In addition, vouchers may sometimes be used to help low-income people make mortgage payments or buy a house.

Research seems to indicate that the Section 8 program is a success. It helps many families live above the poverty line, spend money on food and health care rather than rent, and improve their well-being. It helps families move into better, more stable neighborhoods. It substantially reduces homelessness, especially for families with young children. Surprisingly enough, it also reduces incidences of mental health problems such as depression [source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities].


HUD Income Definitions

"Low income" isn't just a vague political term. For HUD, it has specific meanings:

  • A low-income household earns no more than 80 percent of local median income.
  • Very low-income households earn no more than 50 percent of local median income.
  • Extremely low-income households earn less than 30 percent of local median income [source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities].

Does Section 8 sound like it might be right for you? Learn how to qualify on the next page.



Because Section 8 is not considered an entitlement benefit, everyone who qualifies for a housing voucher doesn't necessarily receive one. According to recent estimates, only about 25 percent of the families qualifying for aid receive it. In many areas, qualified families face fierce competition for vouchers. Waiting lists are often long. Because of huge demand, some local housing authorities have even stopped accepting applications entirely. For example, over 2,300 families are on Chicago's waiting list. Recipients are chosen from the waiting list by a monthly lottery; until the list is exhausted, the application process is closed [source: Chicago Housing Choice Voucher Program].

Section 8 protest in New York City
Photo by Bonile Bam/Getty Images
In 2004, many homeless and low-income people rallied to expand New York

These realities aside, if you are in a low-income group and you need rent assistance or other aid under the voucher program, you should first determine if you meet some basic income requirements. Income requirements vary from one area to the next, but in general your family will need to earn no more than 50 percent of the median income in your area. HUD estimates different areas' median incomes every year.

In 2007, the national median income for a family of three was about $52,000. So, to qualify, your family of three would have to earn less than $26,000 a year. Remember, this limit applies to total household income -- all the income earned by everyone in the household combined.

Another consideration is the number of people in your family. The fewer people in your household, the lower your Section 8 income limit. Here's a sample table of income restrictions for Orange County, Calif.:

For a family of

The household's total income must be less than















8 or more


[source: Housing and Community Services Department]

HUD and its local agencies also consider other factors when determining applicants' eligibility. Homelessness and factors unique to certain locations (such as participation in a local welfare-to-work program) are often taken into consideration. Other criteria that may help you qualify include:

  • being age 62 or older
  • being a U.S. Armed Services veteran, widow or widower
  • working more than 42 hours per week
  • being disabled
  • having U.S. citizenship or legal immigrant status
  • currently residing in a shelter
  • having children

Local housing agencies must also give preference to extremely low-income families, those with household earnings less than 30 percent of an area's median income. Of the new applicants admitted to the program each year, 75 percent must be extremely low-income.

What if I Start Making More Money?

If you qualify for Section 8 and then your situation stabilizes, and your household's income rises, that's great. That's how the program is supposed to help you. The income limits for qualification only matter at the time you apply for Section 8 assistance. However, as your family earns more, your vouchers will be proportionately reduced. Once you're earning over 80 percent of local median income, your assistance will fade out entirely.

If you think you qualify for a Section 8 housing voucher, you should contact the public housing agency in your area. Contact information, including toll-free phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses, can be found on the HUD Web site. Remember, no one should ever charge you for a Section 8 application. Anyone who sells an application or a voucher is committing fraud.

If you'd like to learn more about Section 8, you can follow the links on the next page.



Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities "Introduction to the Housing Voucher Program"
  • Chicago Housing Choice Voucher Program. "About the Housing Voucher Program," "FAQs."
  • State of Connecticut "Housing Assistance: Section 8"
  • HUD "Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet"
  • HACLA "History of the Section 8 Program"
  • NWI Times "History of the Section 8 Program"
  • Orange County Housing and Community Services Department. "Do I Qualify for Rental Assistance?"
  • HUD "Affordable Housing Needs 2005: Report to Congress"