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Federal housing assistance programs began in the 1930’s to address the country’s housing crisis, especially during the Great Depression. Since then the federal government created housing subsidy programs to increase the production of low-income housing and to assist families in paying their rent.

In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 to create the Section 8 Program where low income tenants pay about 30 percent of their income for rent, while the remainder is paid with federal money.

The Section 8 program initially had three subprograms - New Construction, Substantial Rehabilitation, and Existing Housing Certificate programs. The Moderate Rehabilitation Program was added in 1978, the Voucher Program in 1983, and the Project-based Certificate program in 1991. The numbers of units a local housing authority can subsidize under its Section 8 programs is determined by Congressional funding. Since its inception, some Section 8 programs have been phased out and new ones created, although Congress has always renewed existing subsidies.

The housing choice voucher program is the country’s program to assist the very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.

Eligibility for a housing voucher is determined by the housing authority based on the total annual gross income and family size and is limited to US citizens and specified categories of non-citizens who have eligible immigration status.During the application process, the housing authority will collect information on family income, assets, and family composition. The housing authority will verify this information with other local agencies, your employer and bank, and will use the information to determine program eligibility and the amount of the housing assistance payment. If the housing authority determines that your family is eligible, it will put your name on a waiting list, unless it is able to assist you immediately. Once your name is reached on the waiting list, they will contact you and issue to you a housing voucher.

Since the demand for housing assistance often exceeds the limited resources available to HUD and the local housing agencies, long waiting periods are common. Your housing authority may establish local preferences for selecting applicants from its waiting list. They may give a preference to a family who is:

1. homeless or living in substandard housing;
2.paying more than 50% of its income for rent, or
3. involuntarily displaced.

Families on the list who qualify for any such local preferences move ahead of other families who don’t qualify for any preference.

The housing unit selected by the family must meet an acceptable level of health and safety before the housing authority can approve the unit. When the voucher holder finds a unit that it wishes to occupy and reaches an agreement with the landlord over the lease terms, the housing authority must inspect the dwelling and determine that the rent requested is reasonable.

Landlords, though required to meet fair housing laws, are not required to participate in the Section 8 program. As a result, some landlords do not accept a Section 8 tenant. This can be attributed to such factors as: 1) not wanting the government involved in their business, 2) having a full inspection of their premises by government workers for HUD's Housing Quality Standards (HQS) and 3) the possible remediation required.

Awardees of housing subsidy must abide by a series of rules and regulations, often referred to as “family obligations.” These obligations include: 1) accurately reporting all changes in household income; and 2) changes in family composition so the amount of their subsidyand the applicable rental unit size limitation can be updated accordingly. In recent years, the HUD Office of the Inspector General has spent more time and money on fraud detection and prevention.