Low-Income Housing UPDATE: When Can You Expect to Get Section 8 Assistance

When a household applies for public housing assistance, they’re likely to remain on their own for quite some time. It’s not uncommon for applicants in busy areas to wait years for their name to be called.

How long is it?

The need for quality housing is high and low-income families are having a difficult time finding a place that’s satisfactory for living. At some apartment complexes in New Hampshire for instance, over 95% of all residents are waiting for the government to step in and help them get affordable housing.

In Washington, DC it’s worse. The average wait for a single bedroom apartment in that city is 28 years. You want a studio? That’ll be 39. Some apply for aid when pregnant and only have their turn come up after their child has graduated from college. Let’s just say that it’s a long wait.



Changes to the list

From time to time, the list gets reorganized. If an apartment complex with Section 8 residents gets torn down, for instance, those displaced residents now get priority. Since it can take so long to get aid, even those who get put at the top aren’t guaranteed housing any time soon. For those who are getting replaced at the top of the list, the demolition could result in years of additional, unassisted living.

The Public Housing Authority (PHA) responsible for evaluating Section 8 applications, candidates and units can inform you how long the waiting list is for your particular area. If you live in a rural community or a small city, you may have better luck. The wait for the elderly or disabled is usually shorter also. Contact your local office to find out if you qualify for a shorter waiting period.

A shared load

Unfortunately for applicants and non-applicants alike, the burden of housing an area’s low-income families doesn’t fall exclusively to the PHA. In fact, the families and friends of would-be households usually end up bearing some of the load. Multiple families may live in one or two bedroom apartments. The most disenfranchised end up in their cars or in homeless shelters.

Too little for too many

The biggest problem facing many PHAs is that the demand for assistance is just so high. On the heels of a massive recession, many families have breadwinners who are working hard at crummy jobs to come up with any money at all. In other families, even getting awarded a bad job is a fantasy.

So many are in need of Section 8 funding, that they PHAs can’t help them all. After all, each local PHA office is only authorized to provide so much assistance by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who funds the program.

A specific office may be allowed to provide only, say, 650 vouchers to a community in need of 1,000 or more. Even when authorized to help that many, a PHA may be unable to. If the money required to help 600 families maxes out the budget, the remaining vouchers aren’t worth anything and can do no good.

Tough decisions

Many times, the deciding factor between which in-need family gets assistance is purely financial. There are enough low-income families that creating a shortlist of households with no financial resources at all isn’t that difficult. What that means for poor, but not poor enough, families is that their stay on the waitlist gets lengthened.

When the economy goes through a dip, the work is even harder for PHA officials. More families come rushing in and every situation is just a little bit worse than the one before it. Selecting which households get Section 8 assistance can be a very stressful task.



Choice hindered by demand

When the economy is strong and there is less demand for Section 8 housing, the voucher program offers accepted applicants an opportunity to select a place to live. As long as the landlord will accept the voucher and the unit passes a PHA inspection, than the tenant can use a voucher there.

The number of landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers is limited, however. In New York City, there are over 175,000 units at which a Section 8 resident can use his or her vouchers. Nonetheless, the supply does not meet demand. Even in big cities where lots of landlords accept Section 8 there can be shortages.

Those families that eventually do make it to the top of the waiting list rarely get to have a say in where they live. Because all of the units accepting Section 8 vouchers are already filled, their choice no longer involves deciding where to live, but only will you live here?

When asked that question, most families say “yes.”

Other considerations

There are requirements for a household to be eligible to move into Section 8 housing. Certain financial thresholds must not be exceeded. By the same measure, however, some income is usually necessary. Most of these financial qualifications are compared against the median income level of the region or locality. In the end, a specific PHA will decide who gets in, depending on their unique criteria.

In some places, particular debts may disqualify you. Criminal history may or may not. Registered sex offenders are less likely to receive assistance.

Addressing the solution

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done in the short-term to help these needy families with the exception of drastically increasing funding. That is unlikely. The economy is bad for the government also, and it is from the federal government that all this funding initially flows already. Millions and millions of dollars are spent annually to help the nation’s low-income families obtain decent, affordable housing.

In the long-term, prospects may be better. Education about handling money, homeownership, and incentives for saving may serve to be beneficial for communities that have large housing assistance burdens. If residents can be taught at an early age to prepare for the expenses of adulthood, some of the demand may be reduced.

It all comes down to money, though, and even knowledge about money doesn’t necessarily make more of it. Low-paying jobs, especially in America’s inner cities, mean that residents will remain unlikely to earn what it takes to pay for reasonable housing on their own.

Until a solution arrives…

As long as rent prices exceed a tenant’s ability to pay, there will be a need for aid provided by HUD’s Section 8 program. Until more funding, reduced rent prices or better jobs have an impact on the state of public housing, families will continue to be displaced.

They will sleep at friends’ homes, with their extended families, in their automobiles and in homeless shelters. The stresses presented by the public housing shortage are problematic to would-be tenants, the communities in which they reside and the employees of the Public Housing Authorities who deal with the applicants on a daily basis.