For the first time in two years, the Pinellas County Housing Authority has reopened its waitlist for Section 8 housing voucher applications.
The online application portal for Section 8 vouchers in Pinellas County opened at 9 AM on Tuesday, August 30, and will remain open through Thursday, September 1, at 5 PM. Three thousand applications, chosen through a lottery system, will be added to the waitlist from those who apply.
Also known as the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, Section 8 vouchers are a form of public rental assistance that cover a portion of monthly rent costs for low-income individuals and families.
To be eligible for a voucher, you must make at or below 50% of the area median income (AMI). In Pinellas County, that’s $28,750 for an individual, or $41,050 for a family of four, according to the county’s income limits.
The Pinellas County Housing Authority (PCHA), a local agency that provides housing assistance to about 8,500 individuals and families, distributes Section 8 vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This is HUD’s “major program for assisting low and very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market,” according to the PCHA.
The goal of the program is to prevent low-income tenants from having to spend more than 30% of their income on housing in Pinellas County. Paying more than this is considered a “cost burden,” as renters may also have childcare, healthcare, gas, food, and other expenses to cover.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told WMNF in June that the federal Section 8 voucher program is “an essential tool to reduce homelessness and housing poverty.” But, she says, “it’s woefully underfunded given the need and the growing need in many communities across the country.”
This can limit the number of vouchers local agencies like the PCHA have to distribute. This creates the need for the waitlist. Nationally, just one in four households that qualify for federal rental assistance, including Section 8, actually receive it.
Last year, the Tampa Housing Authority opened its own waitlist for Section 8 applications, for the first time since 2006. As WMNF previously reported, they were flooded with applications. In less than a week, the agency received 18,000 applications. Just 3,000 were accepted.
Waitlists for housing vouchers can also stretch long. Applicants can wait years to get off the waitlist and actually receive a voucher. Then, finding a landlord to accept a voucher can be even harder.
Margaret Jones, director of the Tampa Housing Authority’s Assisted Housing Department, told WMNF in June that their biggest problem isn’t insufficient funding for vouchers — it’s a lack of affordable housing units.
“The barrier at this point is really the units we need,” said Jones. “The problem is that investors are coming in, they’re buying these single-family homes or apartment complexes, raising the rents.”
She added, “That’s just not affordable for the families and they are left out there because they can’t afford these astronomical rents.”
Elisa Galvan, director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, told WFLA earlier this month that Pinellas County, like Tampa, is also lacking affordable units.
Rents in Pinellas County have risen dramatically over the last year or so, and housing vouchers today can’t fully cover enough of their share to keep up with the cost of many units.
It’s “almost impossible for families to find affordable housing,” Galvan said, even with a voucher. “They just cannot find a unit in the community, and it’s disheartening for me to tell them, I don’t have any listings.”
Part of the issue, too, is discrimination against voucher recipients. A new law in Pinellas County that bans landlords from discriminating against renters with housing vouchers could help with that, to an extent.
That anti-discrimination protection, tucked within the county’s new “tenants bill of rights” ordinance, prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to tenants solely based on their use of government assistance to pay for part of their rent.
This tenant protection policy, similar to those already on the books in Hillsborough County, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, is set to go into effect Oct. 3.
Karla Correa of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, which advocates for tenant protections, told WMNF she’s glad to see the waitlist for Section 8 reopened, if temporarily. “There’s such a huge need for housing vouchers. I mean, just with the amount of homeless people right now,” said Correa.
But having seen the demand for affordable housing in the community, the local organizer doesn’t believe it’s enough.
What she’d like to see is cities and counties step in to create a short-term municipal program to purchase already existing housing and subsidize it so that rents are based on income. According to HUD, 85% of the county’s existing supply of subsidized units are occupied, as of 2021.
As a long-term strategy, Correa adds that she would like to see municipalities invest in a public developer to build city-owned, permanently affordable, mixed-income housing for residents. She supports the idea brought forth by St. Petersburg City Council member Richie Floyd and the Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) of building “social housing” in St. Petersburg.
This social housing model likens housing to a public utility that serves the people and removes profit from the equation. Social housing has been implemented in Vienna, Austria – where roughly 50 to 60% of residents live in these mixed-income social housing units – and Singapore. And it’s currently being explored in other parts of the U.S., like Montgomery County in Maryland, which has already tasked a public developer with building over 700 “social housing” units.
“The municipalities can take actions like this if they do believe that housing is a human right. If they do truly want to solve the housing crisis, you know, that’s the way to do it,” said Correa.
“It’s good that the Section 8 [application] is open,” she added, “But it is not enough. It’s obviously not enough.”
How to apply for a Section 8 voucher in Pinellas County
The Pinellas County Housing Authority will be accepting online applications for Section 8 vouchers through its online application portal through 5 P.M. on Thursday, Sept. 1.
The HCV program provides rental assistance to families, elderly residents, and individuals with a disability who make up to 50% of the AMI. You can find those income limits here.
After the application window has closed, you can visit WaitListCheck.com or call the agency’s hotline at (727) 450-2111 to check on the status of your application.
Other housing and rental assistance resources in Pinellas County include:
- Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program: Provides no cost virtual legal services for qualified tenants impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and landlords involved in eviction related disputes.
- Bay Area Legal Services: Offers free legal help and resources to low-income residents in the Tampa Bay area
- Gulfcoast Legal Services: Offers legal assistance to low-income residents in the greater Tampa Bay area.
- Pinellas County Housing Resources page