I know a lot of landlords who don’t accept Section 8 or any kind of government-pays-your-rent program, and I always wondered why. The Liberal I was loved the idea of helping people. The businesswoman in me loved the idea of guaranteed rent payments on the first of the month. So what’s the problem? I chalked it up to politics – those landlords must be die-hard Conservatives and the idea of somebody getting “a hand out” goes against everything they believe in.
What Section 8 Is, and Isn’t
“Section 8” is used as a catch-all term for any kind of government rent assistance, but not all of those programs are Section 8. Section 8 itself is actually the best run of all of them, so singling them out in a negative piece about government rent programs probably isn’t fair. I’ve had less problems with Section 8 than I’ve had with the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and Advocacy Alliance. Section 8 waiting lists are long and it’s hard to get on it. Tenants don’t want to lose their Section 8 once they have it, so they tend to follow the rules, for the most part.
In Luzerne County, there are different Section 8 offices. Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority handles all of the city of Wilkes-Barre. If you have a Wilkes-Barre voucher, you can only live in Wilkes-Barre, unless you apply for a transfer. Pittston city has its own, with the same rules. I believe Hazleton has an office as well. All other municipalities are covered by the Luzerne County Section 8 program. So if you have a Pittston City Section 8 voucher, you can only use it to rent a unit within the City of Pittston. Not Pittston Township. Not Jenkins Township, which begins when South Main St. Pittston takes a right at the Sunoco/Dunkin Donuts. You would need Luzerne County Section 8 to live there.
The different offices have different people you deal with, some you might like better than others. But the rules are basically the same. Your unit will have to pass a Section 8 inspection before move-in. It’s a little more rigorous than a city inspection. I remember one of our units failed the first inspection because of a $5 part we needed to put on the water heater valve that I’d never heard of. We went to Lowes, they came back the next day and approved the unit. We also had to fill out some paperwork stating the tenant was not a relative, and that we aren’t charging more for the unit than we would charge a non-Section 8 tenant. Fair enough.
The tenant still has to give you a security deposit. Sometimes this comes from the tenant’s own cash, sometimes from another assistance program. In Wilkes-Barre the Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO) has a program that pays security deposits. *Investors’ note – make sure you get confirmation from the CEO caseworker that the tenant has been approved and the money is forthcoming, and confirm the dollar amount. Many, many people apply for help from CEO. There is only enough money in the program for a lucky few.
The Section 8 Lease
The tenant will sign your lease, but you will also get a lease from Section 8, and if their lease disagrees with yours, theirs wins. That’s one thing I really don’t like. For instance, my lease requires a 60 day notice before moving, Section 8 only requires the tenant to give me 30. And after one year, Section 8 allows the tenant to go month-to-month. My lease automatically renews a one year term.
So you bite the bullet with the lease and the tenant moves in. It is nice to get the rent direct-deposited into your bank account on the first of the month! Half the headache of landlording is removed right there! Well, not so fast…
My real life experience with Section 8
My first experience with Section 8 was this. The family moved in to my $650 unit. Section 8 gave me $525. The family was responsible for $125. I was a little taken aback – I expected Section 8 would be picking up the whole tab, but I rolled with it. The tenants paid their share on time the first month. A few days late the second month. Two weeks late the third month. Then I guess one of them got a better job because I got a letter from Section 8 saying they were reducing their payment to $480/month and the family would now be responsible for $170. How will they manage $170 when they can’t even get me $125 on time? The answer: not very well. I had to make payment arrangements with them, and they were only able to catch up the next quarter when Section 8 decided they were poor enough and started paying the whole rent.
Every year Section 8 sends out a form 90 days ahead of the end of the lease, asking if you intend to keep the tenants. They also give you the option of raising the rent at this time. We always bumped it up by 5%, and they always paid it - that was pretty cool.
What was uncool, though, was the Section 8 program’s complete disregard for my rights under the lease when some tenants moved out in the middle of the night. This was Luzerne County Section 8. We had a family living in Edwardsville in one of our half-doubles that had a little problem with loud noise and disturbing the neighbors. Section 8 makes it very clear that they are not responsible for the behavior of the tenants, that is on us. So I followed my protocol, gave them a lease violation warning, told them if it happens again the next warning would be copied to Section 8. The third time there would be an eviction. So they moved. And didn’t tell us. I guess one of the Section 8 employees went to the house and found it abandoned. So they stopped paying. Here’s my problem with that – you had a lease for one year! As far as I’m concerned, the County is on the hook for the rent until I can find a new tenant! They, however, don’t see it that way. In fact, they had the balls to ask that we return the payment they’d made that month. At the time I was two weeks from giving birth, hormones raging. You can imagine what my response to that was! So my husband handled it. We didn’t give them their money back. We re-rented the unit. Nothing more came of it.
We’re dealing with a Section 8 tenant now that only paid her portion of the rent when she felt like it. She owes us $616. This is partially my fault – I let it slide all these months. The cost and hassle of an eviction outweighed the benefit of collecting at least partial payment from Section 8 every month. Think about it – I file eviction with the Magistrate at a cost of $150 and change. Section 8 cuts off their payments. Now I’ve lost the entire month’s rent. If she doesn’t move, it’s going to cost me 30 days and another $120 check for the Constable to get her out. And she’ll probably leave the place trashed.
She gave her 30 day written notice at the end of July, saving me the trouble of making this decision.
My husband set up some showings for the apartment. When he arrived with a prospective tenant, he found a big security lock on the door that we do not have a key for. And she informed us she’d be staying beyond the end of the month because she needed the holiday weekend to move.
My husband told the Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority we’d be expecting September’s rent then, but we haven’t gotten a response. I don’t expect to. And I wonder how this will impact our motivation to accept Section 8 tenants in the future. I know I will no longer be wasting expensive newspaper ad space on “Section 8 OK.”
I guess it’s a case-by-case basis. We’ve been screwed just as badly or worse by non-Section 8 tenants. But buyer beware – Section 8 isn’t the free ride it’s made out to be. At least not for landlords.
Next week I’ll blog about some of the other government assistance programs we’ve had experience with – some you may want to steer clear of!