My family and I have lived in Section 8 or some other form of low-income housing almost all of my life. It sounds great: a free or reduced-cost place to live for people who fall into certain income brackets. In reality, however, it’s not all daisies and roses. There are hoops to jump through, tough landlords and discrimination issues to deal with, and state regulations to meet. All of this makes the experience less than enjoyable for the thousands of families across the country who rely on the Section 8 housing program.

What is Section 8 Housing?

Section 8 is a program funded by the federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD). It provides housing for low-income families.

There are two types of Section 8 housing: There are public programs and housing developments directly funded by HUD, and then there is the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. This article will be primarily focused on the voucher program, since that’s what my family has the most experience with.

The program provides vouchers directly to landlords, covering a tenant’s rent either in part or in full. The landlord must agree to become a HUD-approved landlord.

Problems With Section 8 Housing

One of the issues with this is that word travels fast. The whole adage of “one bad egg ruins the whole dozen” absolutely applies here.

Some tenants on Section 8 choose to not respect the property, and then that landlord vows to never accept such tenants again.

Then they tell their other landlord friends, and so on and so forth. Eventually no landlord in town wants to accept the vouchers because “Section 8 tenants tear things up and don’t respect the property.”

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Meanwhile, affected families are left homeless, living on the street without a place to go. Since landlords aren’t required to accept Section 8 vouchers, their only option is to move to another area, where (hopefully) landlords don’t have the same mindset.

Small Windows of Opportunity

Another complication is that once you receive approval for a Section 8 voucher, you only have 90 Days to find a place to live. If you don’t, your voucher is cancelled, and you have to go through the whole process again.

This often entails getting on a waiting list in your county or district, but even this is tough to do. Counties open and close their waitlists based on availability of funding. As a result, if you go on the Section 8 website, you’ll see that many counties’ waiting lists are closed. The ones that are open have waiting lists of anywhere from six months to more than two years.

A Lack of Protection

To make matters worse, states like Arkansas, where housing costs are low, attract many Section 8 voucher holders. Landlords also aren’t afraid to accept them there. The reason is that Arkansas is one of the only states in the union that have no tenant-protection laws.

As long as a house isn’t officially condemned, you can rent it out.

You’re not obligated to fix anything — or even speak to your tenant ever again. You can just sit back, relax, and collect your monthly check from Uncle Sam. Vice News made a video about these tenants’ rights issues if you want to learn more.

Final Thoughts

At the same time, I must admit that the program has successfully served thousands of families over the years.

But families like mine have had a hard time finding housing with these vouchers because they’re based on your family size and income, and they don’t always take into account the average rent for your area. For example, a family of four with no income can expect to receive a voucher with a value of about $600. However, the average rent for a three-bedroom house or apartment in Paducah, Kentucky (my hometown) is about $800 right now. And that’s not including utilities and other living expenses.

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There are other serious limitations to the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, too. Families often run into acceptance roadblocks — if they can get a voucher at all. And when they do get one, they can face some nasty landlords and abhorrent living conditions.

The voucher program needs to be updated to reflect not just income and family sizes, but also the average rent in an area based on market values and survey data. This way, when someone does get approved for a voucher, he can actually afford to get his family into a home and away from the streets.

Preview image by Evan Sachs