Section 8 is a housing voucher program funded by the federal government. It assists certain renters – the elderly, disabled and those with very low incomes – to pay for decent, safe housing in the private market. Rules for eligibility and landlord obligations for Section 8 housing are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), not the state of California, but the program is administered by county and city public housing agencies.
Section 8 Housing Vouchers
The Section 8 housing voucher program is the most important federal program for assisting very low-income families, elderly people and disabled people to afford private rentals. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development .
People who are eligible for the rental assistance can select any type of housing that meets their needs rather than being limited to subsidized housing projects. They can opt for single-family homes or apartments as long as the dwelling is safe and clean and meets minimum health and safety standards. These are set locally by the department of health and safety.
Eligibility for Section 8 Housing Assistance
Only those legally in the country are eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers. The local public housing authorities apply the federal standards to determine eligibility. They review the applicant's gross annual income. Generally, the income must be 50 percent or less than the median income for the city or county where the applicant wants to live.
By law, 75 percent of the vouchers must be provided to applicants earning 30 percent or less than the area median income. Assets and family size are also considered.
If the local housing authority determines that an applicant is eligible, it uses federal guidelines to determine the amount of Section 8 voucher that the person can get. The vouchers are issued to successful applicants, but they cannot be used unless and until the applicant is accepted as a tenant by a private landlord.
How Section 8 Works
No government agency, whether state, federal or local, assists a family in locating and applying for a rental unit. Nor are there "Section 8 housing units" that accept only Section 8 renters. Rather, a person or family eligible for section 8 submits an application to rent an available property and the subsidy kicks in when they are selected as a tenant by the property manager.
The Section 8 housing rental subsidy is paid by the local agency directly to the landlord who is renting to them. Any difference between the monthly rent payment and the voucher amount must be paid by the renter. That makes it important for a landlord to check the tenant's individual finances even if they hold Section 8 vouchers.
California Rules for Landlords
Since Section 8 housing vouchers do not apply to subsidized public housing projects, all Section 8 landlords are those offering privately owned rentals. A landlord in California has no obligation to rent to a Section 8 tenant. Rather, the law prohibits a landlord from discriminating against applicants with Section 8 vouchers. The landlord is obligated to accept the vouchers as a source of income and cannot reject those using the vouchers out of hand.
The tenant lists the Section 8 voucher on their rental application as a revenue source and, as of 2020, the landlord must use the same criteria to evaluate that applicant as they apply to other prospective renters. Some California cities outlawed Section 8 discrimination long before the state law was in place. It is now illegal throughout the state to discriminate against voucher holders.
Landlord Section 8 Reluctance
Before the new state law was passed, many property owners in California would specify in their rental advertisements that they would not consider applicants who used the Section 8 voucher as an income source. Generally landlords objected to the administrative burdens involved in Section 8 that can be time-consuming.
A landlord that accepts a Section 8 tenant has extra hoops to jump through to set up the tenancy. The agreement has three parties: the landlord, the tenant and the local housing agency. The landlord cannot simply sign a contract with the tenant. They must put in an application with the local public housing agency and only after they are approved can they begin Section 8 renting. The agency must be a party to the rental contract too.
The agency inspects the premises to see if it complies with HUD standards for safety, cleanliness and furnishings. It also reviews and must approve the total rent charged to the tenant. If there is a disagreement about the amount of rent, the landlord can opt out and rent to a non-Section 8 tenant. If all is in order, the housing agency and the landlord sign a rental contract setting forth the landlord’s legal obligations.
California Laws on Housing Discrimination and Protected Classes
California protects all tenants from certain types of housing discrimination statewide. Section 8 tenants benefit from these laws to the same extent as other tenants. Landlords cannot discriminate against a prospective tenant based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or conditions such as pregnancy.
It is also illegal for a landlord to apply arbitrary standards like selecting a tenant based on how physically attractive they appear to be. Section 8 applicants are included in all of these rental limitations and cannot be rejected for reasons that violate federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination.
Violating Rental Terms
Although Section 8 tenants are assisted by the government, they can be evicted for many of the same reasons as a regular tenant. If a Section 8 renter violates the terms of their lease, like failing to pay the rent, the landlord can take action to evict.
When a city or county provides that evictions can only be had for "good cause," this applies with equal force to Section 8 tenants. A property owner who plans to sell their rental units must notify the public housing agency since the contract between the agency and the landlord will terminate upon completion of the sale.
Given notice, the housing agency will make every effort to transfer the Section 8 lease to the new owner. Under federal law, if a Section 8 building is foreclosed upon, the new owners cannot terminate Section 8 leases and evict the tenants unless the new owners intend to use the rental property as their primary place of residence.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.