Section 8: Info for Tenants

Hello, fair readers. 

As promised, I'm back with information for tenants about Section 8 vouchers (or housing choice vouchers, to use the proper terminology). I'm thrilled to be writing about this, because we get so so so many questions about how to get these vouchers, how to use these vouchers, how to find housing with these vouchers and how to deal with problems while holding a voucher. 

As a recap, Section 8 vouchers allow a low-income person or family to pay approximately 30% of their income as rent to a landlord, and a housing authority pays the rest with funding from HUD. It's amazing when it works, devastating when it doesn't, and all the in-betweens tend to be pretty confusing. 

I was lucky enough to get some guidance from the City of Madison's Marketing Outreach Coordinator, and an attorney at Legal Action, and I'd love to share the fruits of my labors. This week's post is for tenants (last week's post was for landlords!). Next week, I'll address Section 8 terminations.

(A couple notes: in case this wasn't clear, we aren't experts in this! This information is specific to the City of Madison's housing authority, the CDA. While some of these policies may be transferable to other housing authorities outside of Madison - the rules all originate in some way from HUD - they also might not. For more information, contact your area housing authority.)

The Basic Process:

If you are a tenant, embarking on the process of becoming a voucher holder, congratulations! Probably it's been a long wait. Here is what the process would likely look like for someone just starting this program.

  1. Meet with a housing worker. You'll go through an initial screening to make sure you still qualify. More details on the screening criteria is below. 
  2. Receive your housing voucher form. This is a copy of the form, from HUD. The voucher form says who can use the voucher, the size of the unit you can rent, verifies the basic HUD rules, and has the expiration date for the voucher. (Expiration date = the date by which you must find a place to live, and submit the form in Step #4). This is the official document that proclaims, "Tenant! You are allowed to find a place to live! And we will pay for it!"
  3. Find a place to live. Arguably, this is one of the most difficult pieces. In Dane County, where, especially in the city, the vacancy rate keeps breaking records for having So Few Rentals Available To Be Rented (that's the working title), landlords are not allowed to discriminate against tenants for having a Section 8 voucher (DCO 31.03(12a)). In the rest of the state, there are no rules about whether the landlord can or cannot discriminate against applicants with a housing choice voucher. (Feeling the discrimination burn? Check out the resources on our Discrimination page)
  4. Within 60 Days of receiving your voucher form, you must fund a place to live and submit the "request for tenancy approval form" (HUD link here). The City of Madison's housing authority allows ONLY one extension to this (if you submit your request in writing, you may be granted 120 days total to find housing and submit that form), but HUD says "one or more" extensions are allowed, so check with your local housing authority. [Note: since HUD doesn't prohibit more than one extension, it's possible you could dispute this if you are unable to find a place to live. More info on disputes in next week's post, but: keep a good paper trail, write a letter requesting a hearing, and contact Legal Action.]
  5. Your housing worker double checks the paperwork and money. Specifically, they preview the lease (to make sure that the lease doesn't conflict with the HUD regulations or state law), and verify that rent and tenant-paid-utilities fit within rent cap.
  6. An inspector is sent to the rental unit. In the City of Madison, that inspector does an inspection and rent comparison - the price of the rental can't vary wildly from other comparable units in the area, or else it won't pass the rent comparison. The basic document explaining the inspection process is HUD's "A Good Place to Live!" Many landlords are very concerned about the inspection part of the process, but based on what we see, they aren't extremely meticulous, although I imagine each inspector is different. They look for basic health and safety needs to be met by the home, and if the inspection fails, the landlord will be given time to fix it. Here is the form that HUD uses to assess properties
  7. Sign everything! Sign the lease with the landlord! The landlord signs the contract they have with HUD (a HAP contract basically says that HUD will pay the landlord and the landlord will accept that payment). You sign any responsibility agreements that the housing authority wants you to (the CDA's is here, but most housing authority will have their own take on this). Note: it is the tenant's responsibility to pay the entire security deposit - the housing authority doesn't usually help with that. This can be a lot of money! If you need help, you can call your local 211, or if you are in Dane County, you can call us for information about where to get help with a security deposit. 
  8. Live in that unit for at least 1 year. Generally, tenants are not allowed to move within a year of first signing a lease, if they want to keep their voucher. There are exceptions for domestic abuse, reasonable accommodations for disabilities, extreme repair issues and trauma. [Note: if you need to move, and have good cause, then make sure to create a strong paper trail so you can later dispute any termination from the voucher program.]
  9. If you want to move, you start again at Step 1, with additional responsibilities: CDA says you cannot move with any debts owed to a previous landlord (that you rented with a Section 8 voucher) or utility company (on a property you rented a Section 8 property). If you are moving, and it's not a super egregious situation (like the exceptions listed in Step 8), try to make sure you have a clean break with the landlord - the lease must be cancelled (like with one of our terminations by mutual agreement), not just broken (more on breaking leases here and here). If there is a dispute about the rent or utilities and you are denied a voucher, contact Legal Action or Judicare.

Finding Housing:

From our perspective here at the TRC, one of the most difficult parts of this process is finding housing. Usually, the Section 8 housing workers are not very hands-on about finding housing (current caseloads at the CDA are around 375 vouchers per housing worker!!!!!) In the City of Madison, there are *just so few* rentals available. It's hard no matter where you live. But we have a few suggestions. 

  • Write a letter to go with your application. We have a sample letter for you - here's the Dane County version, and the Rest of the State version. This works the best if you fill in a little about your situation (briefly, focusing on the positive). If you need help pulling this together, contact us and we'll do our best.
  • The City of Madison's Housing Authority has a list of housing vacancies from landlords. That list is here
  • Tax Credit properties, also known as Section 42 properties, may not discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders. Here's a Dane County list and a Wisconsin-wide list of current facilities is available here on WHEDA's website, if you click to download "Active Monitored Tax Credit Projects." 
  • The most common way to find housing these days is online! If you're looking on Craigslist, here's our tip sheet. More resources about finding housing are on our Find Housing page

The Many Questions

I don't know about the rest of you, but for me, these vouchers are mysterious enigma in a cloud of confusion. Here at the TRC, statewide rules for tenants and landlords are clear, if not always ideal. But it's almost impossible to figure out the answers to common Section 8 questions based on HUD regulations. So, I asked the CDA staff some of the many questions that we've received over the years, and I hope the answers area illuminating for you. Please ask your local housing authority for clarification - I get the feeling that not everyone does this the same way. 

  • Why would someone who has a Section 8 voucher be terminated? There are so many possibilities. We will cover them in our next segment on Section 8, because we want to do this topic justice. However, the most important thing, according to both the CDA and Legal Action, is to dispute any termination notice you get. Once you get a termination or denial notice, you don't have much time to request a hearing (only 10-14 days - your letter will tell you). To dispute a termination, write a letter and request a hearing - sample letter here. Many folks in this position seek support from attorneys, and  both Legal Action and Judicare cover low-income populations in Wisconsin. Requesting a hearing is especially wise to do this because the housing authority must continue to pay on the voucher until a hearing decision has been issued.
  • What is the initial screening criteria in the first step of the basic process, above? According to the CDA, particular factors that can affect your eligibility are income (you can't be over certain limits, income eligibility guidelines are here), and criminal history. The CDA says they deny those who engaged in "violent and drug related criminal activity" within 2 years from the disposition date, or sex offenders and meth distributors, who are banned for life, but the HUD rules are much more complicated than that, and includes additional bases for denial. For example, violent and drug related criminal activity has specific definitions, and not all sex offenders are banned (just those who are lifetime state registered sex offenders). The upshot is: this is messy. Those who get denials should ask for a hearing. If you wish to expand your knowledge about this, HUD's rules for denials are in 24 CFR § 982.552, and the rules for denials due to criminal activity are in 24 CFR § 982.553. In HUD's Notice PIH 2015-19, HUD issued some guidance about using criminal records in denying folks public housing, with some specific information about best practices and how arrests can't be used to deny someone entry into the Section 8 program.  One of the more fascinating pieces of these laws, for me, is that mitigating circumstances must be taken into consideration, in any denial. This is established in 24 CFR 982.552(c)2, and through a lot of case law after that (more info at the National Housing Law Project).
  • How do I get a Section 8 voucher? They are hard to get. There are a couple ways to go about it:
    • Through your local housing authority. This the most common way, and housing authorities distribute the most housing vouchers of all the options. However, there are usually HUGE waiting lists - in Madison, it's about 8 years long (but that changes). AND. Many of those waiting lists are closed (not accepting new applicants to wait for a voucher). So, contact your local housing authority and ask how they open up their waiting list. The list of all Wisconsin housing authorities is here
    • Through the Department of Veterans Affairs. VASH vouchers are available for homeless veterans who are connected to the VA. More information here. Eligibility criteria here (some of the basics: must be a veteran, must be within income limits, must not be on sex offender registry). In the City of Madison, you can contact Heather Campbell and Clara Pasillas.
    • Through your public benefits case manager. Family reunification vouchers are available for eligible parents whose children have been removed from their custody by Child Protective Services. The vouchers allow the parents working towards reuniting their family the opportunity to have more stable housing. These vouchers are also made available to
      youth aging out of foster care. To pursue this kind of voucher, you need to talk to your Human Services case manager (the case worker who gives you food stamps, etc). More (limited) information available here from HUD.
    • Through subsidized housing. This one is the most complicated, of all of these complicated options. Here's the deal: some subsidized housing (the same as public housing, where you live in a building that the government subsidizes in order to offer housing to low-income folks) is funded by Section 8 funding. For public housing, instead of that Section 8 voucher going to the household, it goes to the unit, and whoever lives in that unit gets the funding while they live there. Occasionally, a household occupying one of these Section 8 subsidized units is allowed to take the voucher with them when they move out. We refer to this as "sticky Section 8," and some units explicitly say that's a possibility when you move in, while for others, you need to repeatedly apply to your housing authority case worker to request that as an option. In the City of Madison, the likelihood of these sticky vouchers is dependent on how much additional funding the housing authority has, where sometimes they are able to offer these individual vouchers to big groups of people, and sometimes only those folks who have persistently requested it in writing.
  • Do you have to have kids to get a voucher? Or be elderly? Or be disabled? No. Housing choice vouchers can be given to any income-eligible person who meets the screening criteria, even if they don't have kids, aren't disabled, and aren't elderly. Income eligibility guidelines are here. However, many waiting lists prioritize those on the waiting list who have children, who are disabled, and who are elderly, so these statuses can help the Section 8 voucher dream become a reality.
  • How does the money work? How much do I pay if I have a voucher? What's the limit on rent? 
    • Generally, someone who has a voucher pays about 30% of their income as rent, directly to the landlord. The housing authority then pays the rest of the rent, also directly to the landlord. 
    • 30% of your income isn't exact: Income adjustments are allowed for disability status, dependents in the household, and medical expenses and the total tenant payment will factor in a utility allowance and the approved rent in the lease. The program prohibits tenants from paying more than 40% of their monthly income toward rent.
    • There is a payment standard for each area which decides how much rent each housing authority will pay, depending on unit size. Usually (but circumstances vary) the formula for a rent cap looks pretty similar to: rent cap = payment standard + 30% of tenant's income. [The actual calculation for payment standards goes like this: The total amount of rent that the housing authority is likely to pay, is 90-110% of the Fair Market Rent.  So, for the City of Madison, their payment standard is 90% of Fair Market Rent (available here - look at 2018). Therefore, they allocate $832 for a one-bedroom.]  
  • If there are 2 adults in the household, and those adults split up, who gets the voucher? This may be something that varies a lot by housing authority, but: In Madison, the voucher identify one of the adults as the "Head of Household." Generally, the Section 8 voucher stays with that person, that head of household. Caveats: If a divorce or custody decree says that the voucher must be designated in a certain way, then that designation is followed. Welfare of minor children can also be taken into consideration. More information is in the CDA's Administrative Plan, in Section 3-4 (page 77)
  • If a minor child becomes an adult, do they have to move out? No, but any income they earn as an adult must be reported to the housing authority and factored into the rent amount (unless they are a full time student, it should be reported, but is not counted as income). 
  • What happens if my family size changes? Do I get kicked out of Section 8? No. Your family can grow or shrink - minor children might come into the family, and they might leave. Either way, changes in family size are not grounds for termination from the Section 8 program. However, if you don't report those changes to the housing authority, or if you don't report the income from those family members to the housing authority, or if those family members are not eligible to live in the property, then you would likely have problems with your Section 8 voucher. 
  • Can I break my lease while I have a voucher? Yes, but only if the lease breaking is necessary due to: reasonable accommodations for a disability, domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, or if the move is needed to protect the health or safety of the family or family member. Besides these circumstances, the housing authority will likely deny a move request if the tenant still has legal responsibilities under another lease (but you can always dispute that! And contact Legal Action for help). According to the CDA, you have to fully end the lease you're in before you are able to move the voucher to a new property. According to HUD, moving rules are here. For the CDA, the steps would be: Step 1. Contact the housing authority and request permission to move. (Repeat Step #1 until they say yes - apparently it's not common for a housing worker to say yes the first time). Step 2: Find some way to end your lease where you are currently living (for example, this mutual termination form would likely work). Step 3. Find a new place to live, and go through the housing authority approval process again. 
  • Can I move to a new city/county/state with my voucher? Yes! You can! That's called "porting" a voucher. You can move to new places, where a housing authority has enough funds to administer your voucher. To do so: call the housing authority in the where you wish to go. Ask if you can port your current voucher there, and ask about their screening requirements (to make sure it's not wildly different from your current screening requirements).
  • I'm in a disaster area like Puerto Rico, Texas or Florida! Can I move my section 8 voucher to Madison? Yes! CDA is accepting vouchers that are "ported in." If you want to know if the housing authority where you hope to move, can accept your ported-in voucher, please call them.  A list of Wisconsin-wide housing authorities is here. 



Hi! Did you know that we aren't attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written doesn't sound right to you, consult with someone you trust. A list of housing attorneys is available here