Section 8 Tenants: What To Know About Your Rights
Written by: Veronique Hart, Property Management Specialist - Published: Dec 28, 2022
Created by Congress in 1974, Section 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher program provides rental assistance through housing vouchers to eligible low-income families and individuals who have disabilities or are older. Program participants usually pay a portion of the rent while their local housing authority pays the remainder directly to the property owner. Section 8 determines a tenant’s rent based on income and a tenant cannot be penalized if Section 8 is late on their portion of the payment, unless the tenant has been terminated from the program.
Every year, those involved in the program are required to recertify their income to ensure they’re paying an appropriate amount of rent. Tenants should be knowledgeable of their guaranteed rights under Section 8 to avoid penalization or unlawful eviction.
Disclaimer: Any legal advice in this article is general and should be verified by a legal professional.
Your Rights as a Section 8 Tenant
Section 8–enrolled tenants are covered by state, local, and federal laws along with additional regulations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); however, many tenants are still unaware of their most basic rights. When an owner enters into a Section 8 agreement, they’re receiving special benefits from the government and, in exchange, owners are expected to follow specific rules to ensure tenants’ rights are respected. Under Section 8, tenants are protected from retaliation against asserting their rights, but many tenants will never escalate their complaints owing to fear and an incomplete understanding of their rights. Although HUD requires property managers to provide tenants with information about their rights and responsibilities, many never see them. However, with more knowledge of tenant rights, tenants and property owners can work together toward equitable and sustainable housing for all.
Right to organize
HUD obligates owners to recognize legitimate resident organizations. Tenants have the right to organize for many credible reasons, such as better living conditions, greater control over their housing, tenant ownership, and better treatment from the owner. Tenants should be encouraged to ask for anything they need to make their living situation tenable and shouldn’t be in fear of retaliation for valid requests.
Right to report violations
Unfortunately, tenants are rarely as well versed in their rights than property owners, so many violations do not get reported to the HUD. Under Section 8 rules, tenants have the right to complain to HUD about landlords who violate Section 7 regulations or otherwise bother them, including harassment. But the HUD isn’t the only pathway for tenants to escalate complaints. Tenants can also notify other tenants, tenant organizations, and the media about landlords who are in violation of their Section 8 rights.
Right to liveable conditions
The Section 8 housing program is meant to make housing accessible for vulnerable communities, but just because tenants are paying less doesn’t mean they should accept dilapidated living conditions. All tenants have the right to safe, sanitary, and decent housing. Property owners should expect to make timely repairs and employ quality maintenance to guarantee their tenants are taken care of and ensure any issues with the property are remedied as soon as possible.
Right to written notice
HUD requires owners provide written notice to tenants of any inspection or required entry into the tenant’s living area. In most cases, property owners are expected to give at least 48 hours’ notice before entering a tenant’s space, but check with your local housing authority to confirm the correct time frame.
Right to intent to withdraw
Tenants are also entitled to a one-year notice of the owner’s intent to withdraw from the Section 8 program. Property owners are required to send adequate written notice to tenants that their unit will be available to rent on the open market so that tenants can have time to find other housing that meets their needs.
Right to notice of rent increase
Although a rent increase is rarely good news, under the Section 8 housing program, HUD must approve all rent increases. Tenants should also be notified well ahead of time about any increase in rent or conversion from owner-paid utilities to tenant-paid utilities. Additionally, if there’s a reduction in the resident’s utility allowance, tenants should receive proper notice before the reduction goes into effect.
Right to privacy
Section 8 protects tenants’ confidentiality by requiring management to keep all information private. Not only must management keep tenant information confidential but they must also protect the information they provide to tenants. Communication on both sides should always be in a written form. It’s a good rule of thumb to keep a written record of any outgoing and incoming communication from management so that, in the case of a dispute, you’re better protected.
What to do if your rights are violated
If the property owner violates any Section 8 housing rules, HUD provides a step-by-step procedure that tenants can use to get the owner to comply. The first step is always to notify the owner in writing of any issue, but the second step is more ambiguous. Tenants are then to wait a reasonable amount of time for a response or for the owner to fix the problem. What constitutes a reasonable amount of time will differ depending on the issue at hand, so using your best judgment is paramount to getting the problem resolved effectively. If the issue isn’t resolved or there’s no reply, tenants should send a written complaint to the HUD Loan/Asset Manager of their building. In order to find out this information, you may have to call HUD. Owners must log all complaints and disclose any violations during their management review, which is why tenant participation is key to making sure management is held accountable.
Section 8 Rules and Regulations for Tenants
Equally important is that tenants fully understand the rules and regulations to remain eligible for Section 8 housing. Every household is expected to abide by HUD’s strict rules, also known as family obligations, that hold participants to a high standard of behavior. First and foremost, the household must remain crime-free and drug-free during their tenancy. Other specific rules depend on your local public housing authority, so it’s essential to research your local housing authority to ensure you’re in compliance.
Live in the unit
It may seem basic, but Section 8 tenants must live in the unit. Tenants can only include approved family members. It’s illegal to sublet the apartment to someone else, and many local ordinances also have a strict long-term guest policy that disallows guests to stay more than 14 days. Beyond that, guests are considered a member of the household, which subjects the tenant to a recertification of family income. In the same vein, new roommates must be approved by the HUD. Ultimately, any deviations from your rental agreement can result in termination from the program. HUD treats fraud at any level very seriously, and legal repercussions are a potential consequence if a tenant breaks these rules.
Report any changes in family income or status
If there’s any change in income or number of household members, tenants should notify the HUD immediately so that they can recalculate the rent payment as needed. Because the goal of the Section 8 housing program is to make sure a household is paying roughly 30% of its income in rent each month, the public housing authority needs to know about any substantial change to your original application.
Follow terms of lease
Common sense or not, tenants should follow the terms of their lease, including paying rent on time and paying applicable security deposits. Section 8 strictly prohibits any illegal activity of any kind and everyone who lives in the unit must pass a background check before being allowed to live in the household. If the public housing authority discovers someone in the household has been found guilty of a crime on the rental premises, the household will likely be removed from the Section 8 program. In instances where the federal law may differ from the local state law, like in the case of cannabis consumption, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid any drugs in the home regardless of whether it’s legal where you live.
Legal Resources for Section 8 Tenants
Though it’s unfortunate, tenant–property owner disputes do happen and unfortunately property owners tend to have more resources at their disposal to fight any complaints. Under the Fair Housing Act, tenants have the right to be treated equally under the law and are protected against discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion, or family status. It’s essential that tenants know what legal resources they have to navigate the system effectively.
File a complaint
Tenants can access HUD’s Office of Federal Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) website to file a complaint online in Spanish or English. They can also download the form and email it directly to their local FHEO office (this list identifies who this complaint should be sent to). More language options are available as well as assistance for people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency.
Contact a Fair Housing Initiative Program organization
If the process of filing a complaint seems daunting, the next best option is to contact your local Fair Housing Initiative Program (FHIP) organization. In many cases, they can speak to a housing provider on your behalf, conduct an independent investigation that includes testing to help determine whether you experienced discrimination. Use this tool to find your local FHIP organization so you can start receiving assistance as soon as possible.
Call the Office of Public and Indian Housing
If you need to file a complaint with your local public housing authority, contact the Office of Public and Indian Housing to get assistance. They have both a help desk that serves as a central source of information and a dedicated customer service line to help residents navigate their housing issues.
Overall, tenants can only benefit when they are informed of their rights under Section 8 and know how to successfully handle any conflicts that arise. The Fair Housing Act may legally guarantee protections for tenants, but it’s up to tenants to hold property owners accountable to the Section 8 rules and regulations and to not let violations slide. To ensure that future generations are able to find safe and suitable housing, residents and managers can work cooperatively to ensure the Housing Voucher Program continues to thrive.