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For Many Tenants, Section 8 Is a Broken Promise. Fixing It Could Keep More People Housed

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A person in a raincoat and black mask covering nose and mouth stands in front of building holdings signs that say "Stop Evictions" and "Cancel Rent."
An anti-eviction protester stands in front of Santa Clara County Superior Court on Jan. 27, 2021, during a demonstration calling for stronger statewide eviction protections. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Evictions are devastating. Not only does a person lose their home, they also lose a major source of stability. A home can be a place of refuge from the world, somewhere to plan the next move, recuperate after a hard day, apply for jobs, feel safe. And, often, a person’s community is centered where they live. So if a person is evicted, they no longer have access to the school, library or church where people know them and can offer support.

Evictions also are common: Millions of people are evicted every year.

As California grapples with its housing crisis, and many people are barely hanging onto their housing by the grace of eviction moratoriums passed during the coronavirus pandemic, stopping evictions is a key way to keep people housed. And the primary reason people get evicted is because they can’t pay their rent.

But the main federal rental-assistance program, Section 8 vouchers, doesn’t always work the way it was intended. And, it’s widely misunderstood by the public. For example, Section 8 is not the same thing as public housing. Instead, Section 8 vouchers are money paid directly to private landlords to help income-qualifying people pay their rent. And far more people are eligible for the program than actually benefit from it.

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Section 8 voucher holders pay 30% of their income in rent, and the subsidy makes up the rest. But the government determines a single voucher amount for an entire city. That’s a problem in expensive rental markets like San Francisco where, in many neighborhoods, the voucher amount is far lower than what a landlord could get on the open market. As a result, the only landlords who have the incentive to use Section 8 are those with buildings in lower-income neighborhoods, which reduces the choice voucher holders have over where to live.

KQED’s Sold Out podcast digs into the history of Section 8, its promise and its drawbacks. It’s part of a special series focused on the complicated web of eviction issues. Reporters Molly Solomon and Erin Baldassari talk to a Section 8 voucher holder about the struggle of using the program and get the perspective of landlords who rent to people with vouchers. It’s a system with a lot of problems, but many people are trying to improve it. If we’re serious about preventing evictions, Section 8 is one of the most powerful and established tools we have.

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