A "now leasing" sign stands outside of an apartment building in L.A.'s Koreatown neighborhood. Photo by Chava Sanchez/LAist FOR USE WITH LAIST EDITORIAL CONTENT ONLY

By David Wagner/LAist

Originally published Sep 21, 2022

For the first time in five years, the city of Los Angeles is reopening the waitlist for its Section 8 housing voucher program.

Next month, low-income residents will have two weeks to submit an online application for a shot at getting on the waitlist.

Section 8 vouchers represent the nation’s largest rental assistance program, and local housing officials are expecting hundreds of thousands of L.A. tenants to apply.

Hyepin Im is the founder of Faith and Community Empowerment, an L.A. organization planning to help English and Korean-speaking tenants apply. She said, “With the pandemic, the growing shortage of housing, as well as homelessness, I predict that the need will be even greater than ever.”

First, check to make sure you’re eligible

Section 8 vouchers provide federal funding to subsidize rents for low-income tenants.

Tenants use these vouchers to go out and find an apartment on the private market, as long as the rent doesn’t exceed local program limits. Currently, tenants in L.A. can use Section 8 vouchers to rent a two-bedroom apartment that costs no more than $2,452 per month.

Tenants generally put 30% of their income toward their rent — with government funding making up the difference.

L.A.’s Section 8 vouchers are only available to households that fall into the city’s “very low-income” category.

For an individual, the annual income cutoff is $41,700. For a family of four, it’s $59,550.

According to L.A.’s housing authority, which administers the city’s Section 8 program, Section 8 vouchers are only available to U.S. citizens, immigrants with legal authorization or to families with “mixed status” (meaning at least one household member has legal immigration status).

When and how to apply

The city’s housing authority plans to accept applications from Oct. 17 through Oct. 30. Don’t worry about getting your application in on the very first day. Officials say applying early won’t give you any advantage over those who apply later in the two-week application window.

The city will only be taking applications online during this round. If you don’t have home Internet access, you should ask your local library or reach out to L.A.-based housing organizations to ask if they’re planning to assist people who need help applying online.

The online application portal is not yet available, but you can keep an eye on the city’s housing authority website here. City officials said more details about the online portal, and where applicants can go to get help, will be coming in early October.

The waitlist is long, and your odds of getting on it are slim

Applying will not guarantee you a voucher — it won’t even guarantee you a spot on the waitlist. Applying only guarantees you a chance to be randomly selected for the waitlist.

After the application window closes on Oct. 30, the city’s housing authority will conduct a lottery to select households for the official waitlist.

The last time the city’s housing authority opened its waitlist — back in October 2017 — nearly 188,000 households applied for 20,000 available spots.

Officials anticipate even higher demand this time. They’re expecting about 365,000 households to apply for just 30,000 available waitlist spots. Based on those figures, applicants will likely have a less than 1-in-12 chance of getting picked.

“Those numbers speak volumes,” said Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the L.A.-based Housing Rights Center. “There’s not enough affordable, safe, decent housing for individuals, for families, for people on fixed incomes, for low-income persons. We have a huge housing crisis in Los Angeles.”

The lucky few who are placed on the waitlist won’t necessarily get a voucher any time soon. Housing authority officials say tenants currently in the system have been waiting up to six years to receive a Section 8 voucher they can then use to search for an apartment.

Getting a voucher doesn’t always mean you’ll find a home

Getting on the waitlist requires luck. Getting a voucher takes patience. Then, in order to finally get an apartment, voucher holders must undertake a lengthy — and often fruitless — search for one of the few landlords in L.A. willing to take in a Section 8 tenant.

A 2018 study from the Urban Institute found that 76% of landlords in the city refuse to accept Section 8. While it is now illegal for California landlords to explicitly reject tenants because they’re using a voucher, many still filter out Section 8 applicants through rigorous tenant screening that demands high income, proof of on-time rent payment and excellent credit scores — criteria many voucher holders cannot meet.

As a result, many voucher holders in L.A. end up losing their Section 8 vouchers because they can’t find anyone who will rent to them.

Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the city’s housing authority, said most of the city’s vouchers are being turned into leases. But with thousands of new emergency housing vouchers for unhoused Angelenos also coming online during the pandemic, competition to find a place has never been so fierce.

“There are probably close to close to 10,000 [voucher holders] now out searching, between the city and the county of Los Angeles, and that’s the most ever on the street,” Guthrie said. “That just kind of compounds the problem of making sure that there are enough available units that people can find out there to make use of this resource.”

Still, unhoused and low-income L.A. residents hold out hope of getting the help they need to afford the city’s high rents.

Christine Garcia, 60, lost her home after her husband died in 2016. She lives on about $1,400 per month in survivor’s benefits. Lately, she’s been living in a motel. She said she’s getting kicked out soon, and finding a place to rent in L.A. isn’t an option on her income.

“It does seem like a long shot to me,” Garcia said about applying for a spot on the city’s Section 8 waitlist. But getting a voucher, she said, “would mean the world to me, because I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”

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