For many felons, finding affordable housing is a major struggle. One popular type of housing assistance for felons is the Section 8 choice voucher program.
Section 8 is a federally funded rental assistance program that exists in every state. It allows eligible individuals and families to rent an apartment from a participating landlord at a heavily discounted rated of about 60-70%
There are very strict eligibility guidelines, so many people with a criminal record get turned down. Still, while it is by no means easy to get Section 8, it can be one of the best long-term solutions to your housing needs.
Here is what you need to know about eligibility, application process, wait time and how the program works.
Can felons get Section 8 housing?
According to Federal Regulations there are two felonies that automatically disqualify you from federally funded low income and subsidized housing programs. If you have one of these, you should NOT bother applying.
1. You have a lifetime registration on the sex offender registry
2. You have been convicted of the manufacture or production of methamphetamine (meth) in federally assisted housing.
Note, these two rules would apply to any member of your household on your application, and would disqualify you all as a family.
In addition to the federal regulations, each state has its own set of eligibility criteria that may disqualify some felons from applying.
Since the 1990’s many state and county Housing Authorities have adapted very strict eligibility guidelines in order to keep crime rates down within low income housing.
As a result, these new regulations may make it more difficult for some felons to qualify for the program.
HUD rules for felons
HUD uses the following guidelines to determine if someone with a felony convictions can be eligible for public housing:
– Your felony should be older than 5 years. Some places, like San Francisco Housing Authority have a 10 year requirement.
In some cases, your application may be accepted before the five year period if you have gone through a rehabilitation program and have a certificate of compliance.
You may be disqualified in the following situations:
You have been convicted of certain violent crimes, certain types of fraud, drug trafficking. (If you have such a conviction, you need to call your local Housing Authority and ask if you should apply).
You or a household member on the application has a documented history of drug and/or alcohol abuse.
There is a personal or family history of poor relationships with neighbors in your previous living arrangements. This can be fighting, bullying, verbal assaults, disturbance of peace, etc.
History of defaulting on your rent payments. Its important to note, that if you have always made at least 50% of your rent, but just were not financially able to pay in full, this situation will NOT be counted against you.
We strongly recommend that you either go to your local Housing Authority or call them, to find out what the eligibility criteria are in your area before you start filling out the paperwork.
How to apply
You should apply to as many local Housing Authorities as possible. You may find that some local Section 8 waiting lists have been closed and are no longer accepting applications.
You should always ask when the list will reopen again and check back to apply at that time.
When you apply as a felon, there will be a lot of paperwork involved and a number of different documents required from you.
First and most important, there will be a formal criminal background check. Thus, there is no point in trying to apply and lie on the application about your felony.
Here is a list of documents you will need to put together in order to apply (this list may be slightly different depending on the program. Always looks for specific guidelines on the HUD application).
-Standard Application (you can get it online on the website for your state’s Housing Authority, or at a local HUD office).
– Proof of citizenship/legal status
– Birth certificates
– Social Security number
– Pay stubs (at least 3 months, but many places require 6 or more months of proof of income)
– Bank statements
– Criminal background check
– Credit Score Check
– Tax forms
– Statement from government agencies about benefits, such as welfare payments or food stamps
– Proof of current residence
– list of all places you lived in the past 5 years.
Its very important NOT TO leave any gaps, even though it may be tempting to leave out a landlord that you may have had a bad relationship with. Any gaps you leave will still look bad and may potentially disqualify you.
Be sure to check the DEADLINE for the application and submit ON TIME!!! If you miss the deadline, the list will close. In many cases it does not reopen for at least 6-12 months.
Once you submit the application, you will need to go to a personal interview with a representative from the Housing Authority. This is your chance to state your case, and convince the official that you will be an exemplary tenant who will not cause any disturbance.
It is also a good idea to mention that you have a felony and to talk about the steps you have taken to be a productive citizen.
The Housing Authority may decide to call your previous landlords to get a sense of how you were as a tenant. It would be great if you could provide references of landlords who would say good things about you.
For your records, be sure to make copies of the application and of all the documents you have submitted. It is also helpful to start a log where you keep track of when and where you have applied, any follow up phone calls, etc.
Being organized will help you a great deal in this process, because often times agencies loose paperwork, and will require you to produce what they need fast.
Section 8 criminal background check
Anybody applying for section 8 housing must go through a mandatory criminal background check. This means that any felonies and misdemeanors you have had in the past will be uncovered. The PHA has the authority to terminate or deny your application based on the findings of the background check.
Even if you are not the primary applicant, but are part of the household that is applying for the voucher, you will still need to submit to a background check. PHAs make every effort to avoid giving Section 8 vouchers to individuals who may pose any type of threat or unrest to people living in public housing.
Furthermore, private landlords are legally allowed to run their own criminal background checks on prospective tenants who present a Section 8 voucher and want to rent an apartment or house.
Can you get Section 8 with no income?
Many ex-cons struggle with finding legal employment and often have no income to show for. The good news is that even if you have no job and no income, you can still be eligible for Section 8.
This is because HUD rules state that your income must be less than 50% of the median income in your area. Having 0 income qualifies under this rule.
Moreover, if you have a family member who has a felony conviction and no job, and he is applying with you for Section 8, your application will not be disqualified because of this person.
Who has priority?
If you will be found eligible, there are a number of situations that will push your application to the top. Your wait time can be reduced to as little as a couple of months.
You may get priority if:
1. You are currently living in a shelter or on the streets
2. Have a serious medical emergency
3. Your current apartment is condemned
4. You pay more than 50% of your income for rent
6. You are facing domestic violence
7. You are being evicted through no fault of your own
8. You are a local resident
Can a felon live with someone on Section 8?
There are many people who want to apply for section 8 housing, but a member of their household has a felony conviction. In this case, will their application be turned down?
The same rules would apply as for a felon who is the primary applicant for subsidized housing (see above). Registered sex offenders and methamphetamine drug traffickers are banned for life from applying to public housing. Most other types of convictions are reviewed by the local PHA on a case by case basis.
However, if someone already lives in Section 8 housing, and a convicted felon wants to join them in their living arrangement, the current tenant is obligated by law to report this updated situation to their local PHA. Based on the above criteria, the PHA will determine whether a felon can be allowed to live with the section 8 recipient.
Failure to report someone with a felony who started living with you in Section 8 housing can result in permanent termination of your benefits. In many cases, you may never be allowed to get public housing assistance again.
Having an unauthorized guest
If you have a friend or family member who is a convicted felon and wants to stay with you in your housing for a few days, there are strict guidelines you must follow.
First, you must ask permission from your landlord and local PHA and disclose that the guest has a felony. Depending on what the charges are, this person may not be allowed to stay with you. You must follow the rules, otherwise, you will be committing fraud.
Moreover, if a felon is allowed to stay in your house, he/she can only live with you for no more than 14 consecutive days. If they stay longer, and someone reports this, you voucher will be taken away.
How long does the application process take?
Typically, any type of subsidized housing is EXTREMELY popular and the wait can be very long. This is especially true in large cities across the US. In these areas, Section 8 wait time can be as long as 2-4 years. In less competitive areas you can expect to wait 6-12 months.
When you are on the wait list, it is important to check in once in 2-3 months to make sure that you are on the active list and that your place in line is moving.
If you live in an area where the wait time is very long, but you can move to a less competitive location, it may be a good idea to do so.
Applying in smaller towns may significantly reduce your wait time. Of course, this has to be balanced with your job and family obligations, and making a move may not always be an easy thing to do.
How does the choice housing voucher work?
Once you receive your voucher, you can start looking for a private apartment, where a landlord is participating is the Section 8 program.
It is important to realize that you will also need to go through the interview with the landlord before they will agree to sign the lease with you. All landlords conduct their own criminal background check and call references.
Be prepared that a landlord may turn you down because of your felony. When you interview with landlords, be honest about your past and discuss how you have changed. Be sure to have great references.
With the voucher, you will be paying 30% of your monthly gross income for rent. The rest is covered by the government and paid out directly to the landlord.
You will need to sign a 12 month lease with this landlord.
Once you leave a rental, you don’t loose your voucher, you will be able to use it again at your next place of residence.
Who can help with housing search and application?
If you feel that searching for an applying for Section 8 is too hard and confusing, there are a few places to seek help.
First, there are local Housing Search Agencies and Community Action Programs (CAPs), where workers will help you start the search for the right housing programs, and can assist with filling out the application.
You can also try a local Housing Consumer Education Center (HCEC), as they too provide search and application assistance.
Finally, if you have a family with children and are already homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, you should contact your local Department of Transitional Assistance office (DTA). They can help you search for housing and get priority status.