Equal Housing Opportunities in New York: An Evaluation of 
Section 8 Housing Programs in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse

Chapter 1


The origin of the Federal Section 8 housing program can be traced to the national response to the need for housing during the Great Depression. This chapter chronicles pertinent Federal legislation that prompted the development of the modern-day Section 8 program and the major court cases that further defined it. This chapter also discusses the different programs available under Section 8 and their eligibility requirements.

Legislative/Judicial History 

The U.S. Housing Act of 1937,1 as amended, created two rental assistance programs. The first is public housing, which is directly owned and operated by local governments called public housing authorities.2 The second program is the Section 8 tenant-based rent subsidy program (referring to section 8 of the 1937 act), in which the local housing agencies, which can be a part of a public housing authority or a completely independent nonprofit organization (called “HAs”3), administering the subsidies contract with private landlords to rent units to lower income households.4 Figure 1 shows the ballooning growth of the Section 8 program as compared with public housing.

As conceived in the 1930s, public housing was to provide temporary shelter for poor families as they moved into the middle class.5 By the early 1960s, however, public housing had become the home of last resort for a disproportionate number of minority families, particularly families headed by impoverished black women with children.6 Federal spending for urban renewal in the mid-1960s razed old homes occupied by blacks, especially in Eastern and Midwestern cities. Instead of dispersing this displaced population to the suburbs, public housing was constructed, further concentrating blacks, and later other minorities, in inner-city neighborhoods.7

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, numerous fair housing laws and policies shaped the field of public and assisted housing.8 Precedent-making court cases soon followed. In 1973 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declared that Federal housing programs are obligated to act affirmatively to promote fair housing. It stated, “Action must be taken to fulfill, as much as possible, the goal of open and integrated residential housing patterns and to prevent the increase of segregation in ghettos, of racial groups whose lack of opportunities the [law] was designed to combat.”9

In 1976 the Supreme Court decision Hills v. Gautreaux 10 established the principle that it is unlawful for public housing either to encourage or perpetuate segregation. Although Federal judges ordered scattered-site public housing, few units were built because of opposition from local residents and lack of Federal funds.11 Instead, Gautreaux created what turned out to be the Section 8 “mobility” program, offering Section 8 tenant-based subsidies combined with counseling and assistance to minority families wishing to move from segregated public housing. By 1997 the Gautreaux mobility program had assisted over 7,000 minority families in relocating to areas of lower poverty and minority concentration.

The most notorious case of resistance to public housing desegregation occurred in Yonkers, New York.12 In 1980 the NAACP filed suit on behalf of black residents to end the city’s 40-year practice of systematic segregation in subsidized housing. In a comprehensive 650-page decision in 1987, NAACP v. Yonkers Board of Education,13 the Supreme Court found the city of Yonkers guilty of intentional discrimination in the location of federally subsidized housing. Among other fair housing violations, the Court specifically cited that local officials had refused to seek all of the Section 8 housing certificates for which they qualified despite a pressing need for low-income housing, and that they had limited the use of Section 8 certificates they did acquire to the black quadrant of the city.14

The Court ordered the city of Yonkers to designate sites outside of the high density minority area for the construction of 200 subsidized housing units and to develop a long-term plan for the desegregation of subsidized housing. City officials, however, opposed all remedial efforts, and during the summer of 1988, the city incurred $800,000 in fines as a result of contempt of court citations for failure to comply. It was not until September 1988, 8 years after the original lawsuit was filed and 2 years after the initial court order, that the City Council, under financial duress, accepted a plan to build 200 units on eight sites scattered among white neighborhoods in Yonkers.15

The Yonkers litigation gave rise to a related case, Giddins v. Yonkers Housing Authority,16 in which the minority plaintiffs challenged the defendants’ failure to provide housing opportunities outside areas of high poverty and racial concentration. As part of the settlement, a mobility counseling program similar to the one created by Gautreaux was established to help families with Section 8 subsidies move to better housing. Early reports indicate that the Yonkers scattered-site and Section 8 mobility programs are having a very beneficial effect on program participants.17

What Is Section 8 Housing?

The Section 8 program, which is the largest rent subsidy funding source of the Federal Government, provides funds to make up the difference between the housing a family can afford and the cost of housing in a specific area. Section 8 assisted housing programs consist of several components, including rental certificate, rental voucher, moderate and substantial rehabilitation, and new construction. This report covers the rental certificate and rental voucher programs.

These two programs, sometimes called the “finders-keepers” programs, are predicated on the premise that the tenant can take his or her subsidy and look for a landlord willing to contract with the HA for a portion of the tenant’s rent payment.18 The landlord must further agree to an apartment inspection by the local HA, as well as various other Section 8 program requirements. In some cases the HA is the same agency that administers the local public housing program.19

The Section 8 certificate and voucher rental assistance programs provide housing assistance to about 1.35 million low-income households. Nationally, more than half (54 percent) of the  Section 8 certificate and voucher holders are minority. Thirty-six percent are black, while 15 percent are Latino (“Hispanic”).20 According to the HUD Office of Policy Development and Research, “Minority and white subsidized households do not end up equally distributed in the same neighborhoods as each other. We do know that certificate and voucher holders end up in more integrated neighborhoods than public housing tenants, but there is still a difference in the locations of white and minority certificate and voucher holders.”21

In 1993 roughly 87 percent of Section 8 families covered by large urban HAs were successful in signing leases, but 30 percent of these successes were from families who used their certificate or voucher without moving.22 Although this rate of success is an improvement over past efforts,23 high success rates merely indicate that more families find some form of eligible housing; they do not necessarily mean that these families found housing of their choice.

Voucher and Certificate Programs  

Section 8 certificate and voucher programs both provide subsidies for assisted households to live in private rental housing of their choice and have similar income eligibility requirements. However, the programs differ in important ways.

Section 8 Certificates  

The certificate program places the choice of housing in the hands of the assisted family. Under this program, an eligible low-income family is issued a Certificate of Family Participation. The family then locates a suitable dwelling unit either within or outside of the HA’s jurisdiction. If the rent is at or below the fair market rent (established annually by HUD) and the unit meets other program requirements,24 the family and owner can sign a lease for the family’s share of the monthly rent. The family pays 30 percent of its “adjusted” monthly income as its share of the rent.25 The HA then contracts with the owner for the difference between the family’s share and the actual rent for the apartment.

Section 8 Vouchers

The Section 8 voucher program, while similar to the certificate program, gives assisted families a somewhat greater choice in selecting a rental unit. As with Section 8 certificates, the amount of the subsidy under the voucher program is the difference between a payment standard for the area, which is based on the average fair market rent for a particular size unit, and 30 percent of the family’s adjusted monthly income. The voucher program, however, permits families to choose units with rent above the market rate established for the area by HUD. If the family rents a unit whose rent exceeds the payment standard, the family must pay the additional amount out of its own pocket, but is free to do so if it wishes to incur the expense to rent a more desirable apartment.

A family may also pay less than 30 percent of its adjusted income for rent if it is able to take advantage of the statutorily based “shopper’s incentive” feature.26 This feature allows an assisted household to pay less than 30 percent of its adjusted income if it is successful in finding an acceptable unit renting for less than the payment standard. Congress expected that the “shopper’s incentive” would constrain rent increases by housing owners since assisted families would have a monetary incentive to obtain the most favorable rents.27 This feature, not present in the certificate program, can also act as a disincentive for a family to move to an area of lower racial or poverty concentration in which the rents are higher.

Eligibility Requirements

In order to receive assistance through Section 8 an applicant must satisfy two qualifications: (1) be defined as a “family” and (2) be “very low-income” in accordance with requirements established by HUD.28

The term “family” is defined by the statute and HUD regulations.29 Depending on the rules adopted for the operation of the local program, a “family” may consist of one or more individuals, regardless of their blood or marriage relationship. With respect to the definition of what groups of persons constitute a family (i.e., nonsingles), the regulations confer discretion on the local HA to provide the definition. That definition must, however, be incorporated in the HA’s Administrative Plan.30

With respect to a single person “family,” the HUD regulations include “any” single person. In practice however, most single persons will not be admitted to the program. Preference is given to families made up of more than one individual unless the single person is elderly, disabled, or meets other criteria.31

The second eligibility requirement concerns the income of the potential recipient. HUD has established a series of maximum income limits for different areas of the country. To be eligible, a family’s income cannot exceed the maximum income permitted by HUD for the particular area in which the family will be housed.

Different income limits are established in accordance with family size within individual communities. The amount of these income limits is calculated as 50 percent of the median income in the area. For the metropolitan areas reviewed by the Advisory Committee the income limits, together with the fair market rent limits for a two bedroom apartment, are shown in table 1.

Table 1     Section 8 Income Eligibility and Rent Limits

Metropolitan area 50% of median income* Fair market rent**
Buffalo $22,000 $525



Syracuse $22,250 $563
*  For a household of four
** 2 bedroom, effective 1/7/98

Source: Analysis of Impediments for the Cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, 1998.

Section 8 Local Administration  

Individual HAs operating under HUD regulations have broad administrative responsibilities in managing the Section 8 certificate and voucher programs, including the following:  

In addition, HAs are charged with specific civil rights mandates called “Civil Rights Related Program Requirements.” These mandates are as follows:

After receiving their certificate or voucher, families initially have 60 days to find a unit that meets their needs and the program criteria, which includes passing the HA inspection. In appropriate cases, such as when the family has special housing needs that make it difficult to find housing, the HA may extend the search period up to 120 days.38 HUD has recognized, for example, that it may be appropriate to provide a family with an extension if it is attempting to find housing in an area of lower poverty concentration.39

Local Discretion

HAs have wide discretion in establishing their own policies and practices. Due to this latitude, some HA practices may actually work against fair housing. Four illustrative examples are described below. First, some HAs may make it more difficult for a family from the city to successfully locate a unit in the suburbs.40 The HA staff may informally refer families who they believe will be better tenants to certain landlords in certain areas and such referrals are against the design of the Section 8 program in that the tenants, not the HA, should select the landlord.41 Second, some HAs, including some central-city HAs, may inadvertently “steer” minorities to certain neighborhoods by providing rental listings that consist primarily of landlords from those areas. This will particularly be true if the HA does not conduct aggressive landlord outreach to broaden the choices available to families, but instead simply lists those landlords who have notified the HA of apartment openings.

Third, other HAs may underestimate the prevalence of racial discrimination by landlords in areas of low-minority concentration and may not sufficiently make it clear to minority certificate holders their fair housing rights and what to do in case they perceive they are being discriminated against. In many jurisdictions these problems are exacerbated by the reluctance of some landlords in low-poverty areas to rent to Section 8 certificate holders.42 Fourth, a Section 8 subsidy holder must apply for an extension of time or forfeit the subsidy if the holder fails to find a unit within 60 days. It is within the HA’s discretion to grant or deny the request.43 An HA’s denial may have serious consequences, forcing a tenant either to quickly redirect her search (perhaps to a less desirable neighborhood) or to forfeit the subsidy altogether.

Section 8 and High-Poverty Neighborhoods

A disproportionate concentration of minority Section 8 recipients live in neighborhoods with high poverty and minority concentration (see figure 3). While 25 percent of blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics live in neighborhoods that are more than 30 percent poor, only 8 percent of whites live in these neighborhoods. Conversely, more than half of white Section 8 recipients (53 percent) live in low-poverty neighborhoods, compared with only 28 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics. The Section 8 program is intended to help move low-income families out of high-poverty areas into areas of less poverty and more educational and economic opportunities. Statistics show that minorities, either due to the HA’s administrative practices or other outside barriers, are not gaining the full benefit of Section 8 programs.44

As has been shown, local housing authorities are faced with several problems. HAs need to eliminate administrative practices that create barriers for Section 8 recipients in obtaining subsidies and in using them in areas of lower racial and poverty concentration. Housing authorities also need to act affirmatively to promote mobility initiatives that will further racial desegregation and deconcentration of poverty as mandated by HUD. Finally, HAs  need to maintain a fair, efficient, and effective program for all participants .


This information demonstrates the need to examine whether resistance to Section 8 housing continues. An examination is also necessary to determine whether administrative barriers may be excluding minorities from housing opportunities, and whether racial discrimination in other forms is keeping minorities from moving out of areas of high poverty and minority concentration.




1 U.S. Housing Act of 1937,  42 U.S.C. § 1437 (Supp. 1975).  

2 “Public Housing Agency” is defined by statute to include “any State, county, municipality, or other governmental entity or public body (or agency or instrumentality thereof) which is authorized to engage in or assist in the development or operation of low-income housing.” 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(b)(6) (1988); see also 24 C.F.R. § 5.100 (1997).  

3  See 24 C.F.R. § 982.4 (1997).

4 The two laws that concern rent subsidies are the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, Pub. L. Number 93–383, § 201(a), 88 Stat. 633, 653 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §  1437f  (1988 & Supp. V 1993)), which created the Section 8 certificate program, and the Housing and Community Development Act of 1997, Pub. L. Number 100–242 § 143, 101 Stat. 1815, 1850 (1988) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o) (Supp. V. 1993)), which created the Section 8 voucher program. In addition to the tenant-based Section 8 program, there are also several “project-based” Section 8 variations in which the subsidy is attached to a privately owned apartment, usually in a multifamily housing development. Those variations were not included in this study which deals solely with the tenant-based Section 8 certificate and voucher programs. “Lower income households,” as defined by HUD, are families whose incomes are at or below 50 percent of the median income for the locality. See 24 C.F.R. § 982.4 (1997).

5 Reynolds Farley and William Frey, “Changes in the Segregation of Whites From Blacks During the 1980s: Small Steps Toward a More Integrated Society,” American Sociological Review, vol. 59 (Feb. 23, 1994), p. 24.

6  Ibid., p. 26.

7  A. Bickford and Douglas Massey, “Segregation  in the Second Ghetto,” Social Forces, vol. 69 (1991) p. 1011.

8 There are five primary laws that protect people against housing discrimination in New York State: (1) title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, prohibits discrimination in all federally funded programs; (2) title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et. seq. prohibits discrimination in both federally assisted and private housing, and with respect to federally assisted housing, in § 3608, requires that the housing program be administered in a manner that “affirmatively furthers” fair housing (1988 amendments to title VIII add two additional protected classes: families with children and persons with disabilities); (3) section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in federally assisted programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance and further requires that program policies and procedures be modified when necessary to “reasonably accommodate” the special need of a person with disabilities; (4) the New York State Human Rights Law, article 15, includes all the protected classes covered under Federal law and adds “age” and “marital status”; (5) § § 235–f, 236, and 237 of the New York State Real Property Law broaden the protections for families with children and protect families and individuals from leases that discriminate with respect to bearing or acquiring children, or which attempt to preclude lease renewal based on child bearing.

9 Otero v. New York City Housing Authority, 484 F.2d 1122, 1134 (2d Cir.1973).

10  Hills v. Gautreaux, 425 U.S. 284 (1976).

11  Chandler Mittie, “Public Housing Desegregation: What are the Options?” Housing Policy Debate, 3:509 (1992), p. 34.

12  Joan Magagna and Brian Hefferman, “City of Yonkers: A Bitterly Fought Civil Rights Case,” Trends in Housing 27 (1988), pp. 1, 9 (hereafter cited as Magagna and Hefferman, “City of Yonkers”).

13  NAACP v. Yonkers Board of Education, 837 F.2d 1181 (2d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 108 S Ct. 2821 (1988).

14  Magagna and Hefferman, “City of Yonkers,”  p. 9.

15  Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 224.

16  Giddins v. Yonkers Housing Authority, 856 F.2d 323, 327 (2d Cir.1990).

17  See Xavier de Sousa Briggs, ed. Yonkers Revisited: The Early Impacts of Scattered-Site Public Housing on Families and Neighborhoods (The Ford Foundation, July 1997).

18  In 1987 and 1990, Congress expanded housing options for rental assistance applicants by enacting statutes that made certificates and vouchers valid in areas other than the jurisdiction of the issuing HA (42 U.S.C. § 1437f(r)). This statutory “portability,” which allows subsidy holders to move anywhere in the State or to any contiguous metropolitan statistical area, has been expanded by regulation to permit subsidy holders to use their certificates or vouchers anywhere in the United States. In 1992, however, Congress attached a restriction. Subsidy holders are now restricted to the jurisdiction of the issuing HA for the first 12 months after their initial admission to the program if the family was not a resident of that HA’s jurisdiction at the time it applied for the subsidy (unless agreed otherwise by the issuing HA and the HA for the area in which the household wishes to reside). After 12 months, subsidy holders are free to use their certificates or vouchers anywhere. See 24 C.F.R. § 982.353(b)(4), 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(r)(1).

19  That is the case, for example, in Syracuse and Rochester. In other cases, such as Buffalo, the local Section 8 administrator is a separate, not-for-profit agency. In Buffalo the public housing authority administers only the public housing program.

20  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, A Picture of Subsidized Households (Washington, DC, 1997) p. 19 (hereafter cited as A Picture of Subsidized Households, 1997).

21  Ibid., p. 5.

22  A Picture of Subsidized Households, 1997, p. 12.

23 A 1990 study found that 73 percent of participants in large urban HAs succeeded in signing leases. S. Kennedy and M. Leger, Final Comprehensive Report of the Freestanding Housing Voucher Demonstration (Cambridge, MA: ABT Associates, 1990).  

24  Units are acceptable if they meet HUD’s quality standards and have rents reasonable in comparison with rents for similar units in a given community. Housing agencies are required to verify these conditions.

25  Adjusted monthly income, in general, is reportable income of all household members, excluding earned income of members under age 18, less allowances for certain expenses such as medical and child care.  

26  At a minimum, a family must pay 10 percent of its gross income. 

27  For example, if a four member family’s adjusted monthly income is $1,000 and the local payment standard is $500 for a rental unit to accommodate this size family, the Section 8 voucher would be valued at $200 ($500 less 30 percent of the family’s income, or $300). If the family then rents a dwelling unit for an amount higher or lower than $500 per month, the HUD subsidy/voucher amount remains at $200 and the family pays the balance of the rent, even if that amount represents more or less than 30 percent of its adjusted income.

28  See 24 C.F.R. Part 982, Subpart E. Admission to the program for persons who are “low-income” (i.e., below 80 percent of the median income for the area) but who are not “very low-income” (i.e., below 50 percent of the median income for the area) is possible in certain circumstances but is quite restricted. See § 982.201(b) (1998).

29  24 C.F.R. § 982.201(c) (1998).

30  24 C.F.R. § 982(d)(4)(i) (1998).

31  The regulations provide a selection preference for all families not comprised of a single individual, unless that single individual is: elderly (62 years of age or older); disabled (a physical or mental impairment of long-term duration that renders the individual unable to engage in gainful activity or a physical impairment of long-continued or indefinite duration that substantially impedes the individual’s ability to live independently and that could be improved by more suitable living conditions); displaced (either by government action or by a Federally recognized disaster); or the remaining member of a tenant family participating in the Section 8 program, should the family composition change during the period of participation. 24 C.F.R. § 982.201(c)(4)(iv) and § 5.405(a) (1998).

32 24 C.F.R. § 982.303.

33 24 C.F.R. § 982.153(b)(3).  

34  24 C.F.R. § 982.153(b)(4); see also § 982.54(d)(5).

35  24 C.F.R. § 982.153(b)(5); see also § 982.53.

36 24 C.F.R. § 982.153(b)(6); see also § 8.28.

37  24 C.F.R. § 982.301(a)(3).

38  24 C.F.R. § 982.303.

39  HUD Handbook 7420.7, chap. 3 (1979);  see also HUD Notice No. 94–12 (1994).

40  Historically, even after the 1987 amendments, certificate holders were often told that they could use their certificate only within the jurisdiction of the issuing agency.  See Barbara Sard, The Massachusetts Experience with Targeted Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, Geo. J. On Fighting Poverty, vol. 16, no. 182, at 24 no. 90 (1993).

41  See 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(d)(1)(A) (1988).

42  42 U.S.C. § 1437f(t) (Supp. V 1993) ostensibly prohibits discrimination against Section 8 applicants by landlords who already rent to other Section 8 tenants. Proposals have recently been made that may eliminate this provision in order to expand landlord participation. See M. Finkel, Final Report on Recommendations on Ways to Make the Section 8 Program More Acceptable in the Private Rental Market (Cambridge, MA: ABT Associates, 1994), pp. 22–23. Provisions in the FY 1997 and FY 1998 HUD appropriations bills (H.R. 2158 and H.R. 3666, respectively) included provisions suspending the application of this section.

43  24 C.F.R. § 982.303.

44   A Picture of Subsidized Households, 1997.