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Surge Desk

Oakland Housing Authority's Section 8 Wait List Opens: An Overview of the Program

Jan 25, 2011 – 5:56 PM
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Mary Phillips-Sandy Contributor

At 8 a.m. today, the Oakland (California) Housing Authority began accepting applications for Section 8 assistance. People who want to request help through the rent-subsidy program need to act quickly: The list closes at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Earlier in the month, Oakland Housing Authority director Eric Johnson told a local newspaper that he expected as many as 100,000 applicants. "We know that our families have been hard hit. We know there is a large need out there," he said. Indeed, this afternoon the Oakland Housing Authority website went offline briefly, perhaps because of heavy traffic.

In Oakland, 11,000 families receive Section 8 subsidies and approximately 10,000 more will be added to the wait list this week.

As the effects of the recession send more people in search of housing assistance, Surge Desk decided to investigate some common questions about the Section 8 program. Here's what we learned.

How does Section 8 work?
It's a subsidy system that helps low-income people find housing in the private market. People who receive Section 8 vouchers can look for housing of their choice, as long as the landlord agrees to participate in the Section 8 program. A local housing authority pays a portion of the market rent on the Section 8 renter's behalf, and the renter is responsible for paying the rest. Most Section 8 renters pay about 30 percent of their market rent.

Although individual rent subsidies are handled at the local level by agencies such as the Oakland Housing Authority, the Section 8 program is overseen and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Is it in Section 8 of a current law or code?
No. The portion of the current U.S. Code that covers Section 8 is Title 42, Chapter 8, Section 1437f. The program was created as Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which aimed to reduce the portion of income spent on rent by low-income families.

Who's eligible for Section 8 assistance?
Section 8 eligibility is determined by several factors, including total annual gross income and family size. Section 8 recipients' income cannot exceed 50 percent of the median income in their area, and priority is given to applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30 percent of the local median income. Section 8 is further limited to U.S. citizens, permanent residents and eligible immigrants who meet specific criteria.

Does Section 8 have critics?
Yes. Critics, often conservatives, have argued that Section 8 and other housing-subsidy programs are forms of welfare. They claim that these subsidies cost too much, are vulnerable to fraud, create a cycle of dependence on government assistance, thwart the natural workings of the free market and do nothing to alleviate poverty. Others criticize the program for its abundance of red tape and bureaucracy, which can be difficult for many people to navigate.

Can Section 8 really help people?
In some cases, it certainly appears so. Staten Island-based housing organization Project Hospitality shares the story of "F.," who struggles with depression and was homeless until receiving Section 8 assistance. "I'm in my own place ... a place I can call home," F. writes. "
I'll be starting school shortly, and best of all I feel like I'm a functioning human being once again."

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