How the Housing Choice Voucher Program Works in Washington, DC

You don’t have to be in real estate to be familiar with the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP), or Section 8. HCVP is a part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974–Section 8, to be precise–it ensures that low-income households have access to “decent housing and a suitable living environment” apart from public housing.  The impetus behind HCVP was to remove low-income families, the elderly, and disabled from the environments of violence, drug use, and crime that were prevalent in public housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Housing vouchers pay rent subsidies to landlords, giving those with low-incomes the chance to live in a “better” neighborhood; thereby granting access to improved employment opportunities, better schools, less crime, and greater amenities. 

How the Housing Choice Voucher Program Works

In the D.C. metro area, over 13,000 of residents benefit from HCVP vouchers. According to rentdata.org,  over 90,000 residents who qualify for housing vouchers. The housing shortage takes them out of the equation. The qualifying standard to be eligible for a housing voucher is income. Combined household income must be less than 50% of the median income in their community (the Area Median Income, or AMI.) In the Metro area, that’s about $50,000 for the baseline family of four. The reality is that the income for most voucher holder’s is closer to $30,000 (based on 2016 numbers.)

 It is clear that $30,000 worth of income is not enough for”decent” housing in the District. This means low-income residents are “rent-burdened”–they pay more than 30% of their income in monthly housing expenses. Housing assistance caps the amount residents pay out of pocket at that 30%; the voucher pays the balance. The D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) oversees the voucher program in the District, and they pay rents directly to the landlord. 

When a household gets a voucher–there is a long waitlist, and the DCHA allots vouchers by lottery–they are required to find housing within sixty days. Any place they find must fall within HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) guidelines, which in 2019 was $1665 for a two-bedroom apartment. A four-bedroom residence has an FMR of $2678. 

Housing Vouchers in the Metro Area

Congress allocates the number of vouchers available to every administrating authority, based on available funding. As stated earlier, there are about 13,000 in the Metro area. Most of those vouchers are tenant-based, which means that when they move out, the voucher goes with them. Project-based vouchers are attached to a specific property based on landlord qualifications, and are capped at 30% of vouchers in the D.C. area.

Housing Choice Voucher Program’s Impact on Housing Laws and Rentals

While it is permissible for landlords to require a certain income level for tenant approval, it is NOT permissible to refuse to rent to property because the tenant has a housing voucher. According to the Code of the District of Columbia, 

(c) The owner of a housing accommodation shall not refuse to rent a dwelling unit to a person because the person will provide his or her rental payment, in whole or in part, through a section 8 voucher.

The code goes on to confirm that the voucher should be considered income and factored into the tenant’s ability to pay. In fact, D.C. law goes so far as to  include “sources of income” as a protected class, along with race, gender, and disability. What this means in practice is that landlords cannot advertise that they will not accept vouchers. 

Where Is the Most Active DC Area for Housing Vouchers?

Washington, D.C. is the most socioeconomically distant city in the country. High-income residents live in the Northwest quadrant, where homeownership is highest, and the lowest-income residents are east of the Anacostia River

A 2013  study by the Urban Institute found that Washington, D.C. had the lowest denial rate for housing vouchers among the metropolitan areas in the study. One of the reasons for this relatively low rate is that the DCHA varies its payment maximum by neighborhood. For example, the standard for a unit in Columbia Heights will differ from the standard in adjacent Petworth. That a landlord can realize market rents with housing vouchers makes it more attractive to market to that demographic. There are pockets of residents using housing vouchers throughout the city; even Georgetown has a few units in the program. 

Benefits of Being a Housing Choice Voucher Program Landlord

Real estate investors who are interested in working with housing vouchers have incentives to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

How The Housing Choice Voucher Program Works In Washington, DC

It is a common misconception that tenants who occupy a residence via a housing voucher are more likely to be a high risk for property damage, but that is not the reality. The DCHA screens prospective tenants before they are granted a voucher, so anyone who applies for housing has already passed a background screening.  These are some other advantages to accepting housing vouchers. 

  • You can determine market rent, and are exempt from any rent controls. 
  • There is limited paperwork–you sign a contract with the HCVP and a standard year lease with the tenant. After a year, you can renew on a monthly basis. 
  • You’ll get paid by direct deposit. If the tenant has a loss in income, DC Housing will make up the shortfall. For most landlords who are carrying a mortgage, knowing you’ll be paid regardless of your tenant’s finances brings great peace of mind. 
  • Vacancies are practically unheard of in D.C. anyway, and more so for housing units that accept vouchers. There are so few options for low-income housing that you will not have many rent-free months. 
  • Landlords who accept vouchers are required to maintain the property in good repair, and to make that easier, you’ll get a free inspection every year to ensure that the property is in compliance with Housing Quality Standards (HQS).  If your unit fails two consecutive inspections, you’ll be charged $75 for the third inspection–a far cry from the hundreds of dollars you’d pay for a private inspection. 

Conclusion

Working with the Housing Choice Voucher Program in the D.C. area is unique in that the District has implemented a broad range of laws that encourage landlords to accept vouchers. If you are thinking about investing in property for low-income residents, you need a property manager who’s familiar with D.C. Housing regulations and can ensure you are within fair housing compliance and your properties meed HQS standards. 

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