How Do Housing Choice Vouchers Work?

Offering aid to people can be a controversial topic. Some people think we need more government in this process, and some people think we need less. Many people believe churches should be the ones shouldering the brunt of this responsibility, as the Bible takes every opportunity to elevate the cause of aiding the poor.

We believe that it’s our responsibility to love as Jesus loved 2000 years ago here on earth and show people that He still loves them today, amidst all their struggles in life. But it’s true that the government has also stepped in in the last several decades and made attempts at creating a solution for homelessness. As we said above, some people are all for these measures and some are against them, thinking they give people a handout or an easy way out of a problem for which they need to discover their own solution. But are they easy  solutions? Let’s take a look at one method of government aid called Housing Choice Vouchers.

In its own words, it’s a program full of hope and opportunity. Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 housing, aid people in serious need of a home who fall well below the median income of a city. It’s not the same as public housing, where the government owns buildings and allows people to live there. It gives people a “choice” of where to live and a “voucher” for a portion of that rent. Housing agencies are funded by HUD, or the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, founded in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and currently helmed by one Dr. Ben Carson.

You might be asking yourself, “are people just getting homes for free while I’m working for my rent?” (We talked a little bit in a previous post about how hard it can be for homeless people to even get a job, much less make a living wage.) The goal of housing voucher programs is to give people a hand up in the world so that they can turn around and make a living for themselves and cover all of their own expenses. But as we’ve talked about before, it’s important to realize that not everyone starts out on the same footing in life. Someone getting government aid for housing isn’t living a dream life and certainly isn’t in luxury; they’re struggling to provide even a roof over their heads for themselves and their family, not to mention other necessities like food, clothing, and healthcare.

So who can apply for this housing program? You have to be 18 or older and be making less than 50% of the median income for your area to apply. In Charlotte, the median income is around $50k per year, so to qualify for this housing program you would have to make $25k or less per year. If an applicant has a family, then the maximum amount they could be earning increases a little per person in the household. If people are already homeless (not just low-income) they may have priority on some of the waiting lists, and in fact Charlotte’s waitlist prioritizes the homeless.

People who are requesting to be a part of this program need to be holding down jobs, or in some cases receiving public assistance, social security, or unemployment is enough to qualify. Past rental history and a criminal record will also be examined, and negatives of these usually aren’t immediate denials, but they certainly don’t help.

Residents must pay 30% of their income towards rent, and the local housing authority submits the remainder directly to the landlord. There are a few different voucher programs, specifically some programs are tied to the property and some are tied to the tenant. For the latter, the tenant themself/ves can move to a different location if need be and still receive the rent money for which they qualified.

So if we have this program in place, why isn’t homelessness solved? Well first of all, in order for someone to get their turn at the housing choice voucher, there has to be a vacancy. Someone else has to have moved on or out of the program, so the wait is typically a minimum of a few years. For the elderly, who frequently are housed in locations that are specifically for those of retirement age, the turnover may be quicker than those applying who are younger and families. 

But there could be many reasons that homeless people aren’t applying or can’t apply for Section 8 housing. A big one, as we talked about in our recent post about who the homeless really are, is that many homeless people have some sort of mental illness. That, coupled with the bureaucracy of filing to be put on the waitlist for Section 8 housing and the issues we’ll mention next, may not be possible for people with special needs. They may not have any money coming in, either through employment or welfare, to pay their portion of the rent and utilities. The wait list is very long. In Charlotte, the list is currently closed, and is capped out at 13,000 families! Not people, families, are waiting years to even be interviewed for this process. Single people tend to fall below families and elderly people in priority on the list, and then there are further categories like people in immediate danger, domestic abuse victims, etc.

Once someone’s name gets to the top of the list, they get a letter mailed to their last known address letting them know the time and place of an interview. If they’re at a new location, if their situation is up in the air and it’s hard for them to receive mail, if they work long hours, they may not receive the letter at all and will miss the interview, and have to start fresh with a brand new application. 

Once they get their voucher, if they’re approved, they have to find an available space with a landlord who will accept housing choice voucher recipients. And then there are levels to what each landlord is looking for in a tenant. Some of them want records of criminal behavior and rental history, and some of them aren’t looking for anything but a paycheck.

This system is in place to help people, but there has to be space available with a landlord who will accept them. It isn’t easy street once the voucher is in your hands, and most websites encourage people using the program to apply for housing at multiple places to ensure a higher chance of success. (Application fees still apply for many of these situations, by the way. Yet another financial barrier to entry for the homeless and possibly the low-income earners as well.) So even though we do have this system, there are many reasons why homelessness is still a problem in our country.

How does our city stack up with this program? As we already said, the wait list for the Charlotte Housing Authority Housing Choice Voucher program is holding strong at 13,000 families. It’s currently capped, so no one new can apply. This drastically lowers the efficacy of Section 8 as current and viable solution to homelessness. Through the Charlotte Housing Authority website, applicants can find low-income housing while they wait to (hopefully) be approved for housing choice vouchers. Rent can range anywhere from the low hundreds to the high hundreds depending on the individual location and bedrooms, and there are income caps so that these options are only available to those earning below a certain amount in salary.

It may seem like an easy way into an apartment for low rent, but the struggle for those who are already having a hard time finding good quality housing for themselves and often their families is the farthest thing from easy. Most of us can simply open Zillow if we want to make a move, and do a broad search all over the city as we decide where we want to plant roots. For those searching for low-income housing, they have to take what they can get with little control over neighborhoods, and hope the area is safe for their families.

To give a better idea of the situation here in Charlotte, the waitlist for housing vouchers was last open in 2014. Before that, 2007. It remained open in 2014 for all of 5 days, and over 32,000 people applied for aid in that time. That number was three times less in 2007 when the wait list opened. In 2016, the average household using vouchers had an income of around $12,000 per year. 52% of the households had children, 51% were single-mother families, and 85% of households over all had a female head of house.

So what can we do about all this? If people are unable to support themselves and their families, and have to wait years to get help with rent from the government, homelessness seems like an inevitability.

One thing we can do is advocate for the homeless in businesses. Homeless people need jobs, just like the rest of us. And if they had jobs that compensated them fairly, that could be the footing they need to get their lives on track. Too many homeless and low income people are stuck in low paying jobs because an employer is aiming for cheap labor. We can stand up for what’s right when we see that happening in businesses, and make unfairly compensated labor a thing of the past.

First and foremost, what we can do to help the homeless is to reach out a hand and meet them where they’re at. They need friendship, faith, and community just like all of us. The Dream Center exists to accomplish that goal and we’d love to have you along for the ride. Check out more and sign up to get involved. We can’t wait to work with you!


Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet,
What is the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program,
What Housing Vouchers Can and Can’t Do,
The Power of Public Housing, The Atlantic
Housing Choice Voucher, Charlotte Housing Authority
Wait List Information, Charlotte Housing Authority
The Long Wait for a Home, National Low Income Housing Coalition
Section 8 Vouchers Help the Poor, But Only if Housing is Available, NPR