The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) operates a federally subsidized housing program commonly called Section 8. Benefits for this program, which is official known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, are primarily distributed by local public housing agencies (PHAs) through housing choice vouchers. These vouchers allow low-income families or households with elderly and disabled members to afford their own housing in the private market. United States citizens and certain immigrants who meet the requirements can benefit greatly from this housing assistance program offered by the HUD.
Unfortunately, the need for low income housing assistance often surpasses the amount of funding that is available to distribute. In order to manage the demand, PHAs place eligible applicants on waiting lists before their applications are fully processed. Many PHAs across the country have waiting lists, and residents in major cities tend to have far more candidates than less populated areas. Public housing agencies (PHAs) select the order that they will process applications using a lottery method to choose in the fairest way possible.
The Section 8 Waiting List Lottery
Once a PHA receives an abundance of applications, it establishes a Section 8 housing waiting list. Waiting lists can reach wait times of over two years in some cases, and housing agencies can choose to close their waiting list if it gets too long. After a list is established, a housing authority will implement a lottery system to determine the order in which applications will be processed and vouchers will be distributed.
These lotteries may seem arbitrary, but PHAs consider them the fairest way to distribute the limited funds that the HUD has available for housing assistance. In many areas, waiting lists gets so long that they are often closed and not accepting new applicants. Lotteries are used by many housing authorities to decide which households are added to the waiting list. This method seems more appropriate than compiling a list so long that thousands of people will never be reached. Each PHA is responsible for managing its own waiting list, so their lottery processes may vary.
The Miami-Dade County housing authority manages its waiting list slightly differently than many others. First, it holds a limited application period, usually about once every year or two. Once all requests have been submitted, the PHA implements a computerized random lottery in order to establish the order the applications will be processed. In theory, a household can submit a request on very last day of the application period and still be selected first to be processed through the Section 8 lottery.
In certain cases, an application from certain low-income households will not be placed on the waiting list and will instead be instantly rejected or prioritized. Applications can either be rejected during preliminary eligibility determinations, or they can meet local preferences and become a priority case, skipping most of the Section 8 waiting list. These circumstances allow for more urgent cases to be handled first and for clearly ineligible candidates to be disqualified immediately. In both cases, the waiting list lottery is avoided.
Preliminary Eligibility Determinations
When potential tenants submit their applications for housing assistance, they may not even make it onto the waiting list if they do not meet Section 8 eligibility requirements. A public housing agency (PHA) uses the information a candidate provided when applying to make preliminary eligibility determinations. Agents will look over the request, keeping an eye out for obvious factors that could make an applicant ineligible. Preliminary eligibility determinations help to reduce wait times by reducing ineligible tenants before they are even approved for the waiting list.
Housing agencies are able to identify their local preferences for low income housing based on the needs of their communities. Housing choice vouchers are not distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Cases either receive priority and are processed as soon as possible, or they are placed on the waiting list for the Section 8 lottery. Typically, PHAs attempt to target the housing needs of their local community by giving preference to applicants who are:
- Homeless or living in substandard or unsanitary housing.
- Paying more than 50 percent of their household income on rent.
- Involuntarily displaced.
- Victims of domestic or child abuse.
Note: Preferences cannot be used to delay or reject applicants based on race, color, ethnic origin, gender, religion, disability or the age of any member in an applicant’s household.
After You Are Selected in the Section 8 Lottery
Once your household is selected from the housing authority waiting list, you will proceed to the next step in the process. Being chosen from the lottery does not mean that you have been approved for assistance. After you are selected, you will receive a notice in the mail where you will be asked to schedule an appointment for an in-person eligibility interview. The primary purpose of these interviews is to verify the information that you provided on your applications. Additionally, your agent will be able to give you an overview on how the program works and answer any questions that you may have.
Before your interview date, it is important to ensure that you have all of the required documents at hand. Typically, you will need documents that serve as proof of the information you have included on the application, such as income, citizenship and identity. Providing false information on any Section 8 application is a punishable offense, and your interviewer will remind you of this at the start of your interview.
Furthermore, your interviewer will begin a background check either during or immediately after your interview. The housing authority will usually screen for rental, housekeeping, drug abuse and other criminal history. The HUD has strict regulations about sexual abuse and illicit drug use. Any tenant in Section 8 housing can lose assistance and be restricted from the program for some time if anyone in the household is charged for a sexual or drug-related crime.