The short answer is that under Section 8 rules, when you first rent a unit or move to a new unit, your share of the rent will be between 30% and 40% of your household's adjusted income. Later on in your tenancy, your share of the rent may be even more than 40% if the landlord raises the rent. The minimum amount of rent that you must pay will be 30% of your household's adjusted income. The maximum when you first rent or move can be no greater than 40% of your monthly income.12 But, it is impossible to tell exactly how much your rent will be until after a housing authority approves a specific place.
When you get a voucher, you should ask the housing agency to write out the maximum amount that you will be able to rent a place for.
The longer answer to this question is more complicated. Figuring out your portion of the rent depends on several variables.
Fair market rents and payment standards
Every year, HUD publishes the fair market rents for each area in the United States. These figures reflect what HUD thinks is the appropriate rent, based on number of bedrooms, for each area of the country. See the chart, Fair Market Rents in Massachusetts.
Using these fair market rents, a local housing authority then sets what is called a payment standard, which is used to calculate the rent the housing authority pays to the owner (known as the housing assistance payment, or HAP). A housing authority may establish its payment standard between 90% and 110% of local fair market rents.13 Generally, what happens is that the housing authority subtracts 30% of your adjusted income (tenant total payment) from the payment standard and pays the difference to the landlord. This is called the maximum subsidy.
- Total tenant payment (usually 30% of income)
= Maximum subsidy (from the housing authority)
The maximum subsidy is the most that the housing authority will pay a landlord.14 If the rent is higher than the payment standard, then you will have to make up the difference. For example:
- If you found a place where the amount of rent plus tenant-paid utilities is below the housing authority's payment standard, you would pay 30% of your monthly income for rent and tenant-paid utilities.
- If you could only find a place with rent plus utilities above the payment standard, you would be allowed to pay up to 40% of your monthly adjusted income for rent and tenant-paid utilities when you first move in. If your portion of the rent and tenant-paid utilities exceeds 40% of your adjusted income, you will not be allowed to lease the apartment. But there may be some things that you can do (see What can I do if the housing agency says I can't rent a place because the rent is too high?).
When you first lease up with a voucher, the Section 8 law limits the percentage of income that you can pay toward rent and tenant-paid utilities to 40% of your income.15 The law also limits how much rent an owner can charge because it must be "reasonable" when compared to similar units in the area.16 This means that some apartments and houses will have rents that are too high for the Section 8 program.
If the housing authority payment standard is low (for example, 90% of fair market rents), you can try to advocate that it raise the payment standard to 100% or 110% of the fair market rents for the area. For more about fair market rents and payment standards, see What will my share of the rent be when I rent an apartment with a Section 8 voucher?
If you find an apartment but the housing authority says the rent is too high, ask the landlord whether she would consider lowering the rent to an amount that is allowed by the housing agency. Some landlords like the guarantee of payment that the Section 8 program offers and are willing to lower the rent. The housing authority may be willing to play a role in requesting a lower rent from the owner.
The number of bedrooms you need will affect the rent that the housing authority will approve. A larger-bedroom unit will allow a housing authority to approve a higher contract rent.
If you have a disability and need access to certain housing or medical services, the housing agency may be able to increase its payment standard as a reasonable accommodation.17 This might require the permission of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and it is a complicated process to get this approval. You will need the help of a lawyer. For more about this, see Reasonable Accommodations.
12 See 24 C.F.R. § 982.508. This applies where the total of the rent and utilities is greater than the payment standard.
13 HUD approval is not required to establish a payment standard amount in that range ("basic range"). The PHA must request HUD approval to establish a payment standard amount that is higher or lower than the basic range. HUD has sole discretion to grant or deny approval of a higher or lower payment standard amount ("exception payment standard amount"). 24 C.F.R. § 982.503(b)(2). If the family includes a person with disabilities and requires a higher payment standard for the family as a reasonable accommodation
for such person, the housing authority may establish a higher payment standard for the family within the basic range. 24 C.F.R. § 982.505(d).
14 See 24 C.F.R. § 982.505 (a).
15 24 C.F.R. § 982.508.
17 24 C.F.R. § 982.503(c) (2)(ii) and 24 C.F.R. § 8.28(a)(5).