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McKinney teens were bullied for their "Section 8 homes." Here's what that means.

McKinney Texas police officer

McKinney, Texas police officer Eric Casebolt grabs a girl by her hair in a still of a video that quickly became viral

Earlier this week, a viral video was released showing a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, manhandling and threatening a group of black teens with a gun. Among the racially charged epithets thrown around was the suggestion that black teens "go back to [their] Section 8 home."

It seems a little strange for racist hecklers to bring up an obscure federal subsidy program, but the link between Section 8 and racial conflict has been salient in McKinney for years. In 2009, the nonprofit Inclusive Communities Project sued the city for housing discrimination. According to the complaint, the city blocked the development of affordable housing projects in the city's white neighborhoods. In addition, apartments that have been approved to participate in the Section 8 program also fall predominantly in the nonwhite, eastern part of McKinney. Combined, these two factors led to residential segregation along racial lines. The city and ICP eventually settled out of court.

But with about 5 million beneficiaries across the country, most of whom are white, the program isn't quite what people think. And while the assistance is no doubt useful to those who receive it, it doesn't come close to meeting the full housing needs of the American population.

Okay, so what is this? What's it the 8th section of?

The name derives from Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which in turn was a revamping of a Depression-era housing assistance program. Broadly speaking, it's a program that gives poor people money to rent a place to live.

Section 8 vouchers are funded federally but distributed regionally by local housing authorities. For example, a person living in the Boston area would apply though a housing authority such as the Boston or Cambridge housing authorities, or could apply online through the centralized Massachusetts waiting list.

Unfortunately, many Section 8 waitlists are incredibly long, meaning it could take many years for an eligible family to make it off the waiting list. Some are even closed, since waitlists are long enough to use up all the available federal funding.

Who uses Section 8?

Section 8 serves low-income and very-low income households — here, "household" can mean anything from an individual person to a large, multigenerational family. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines "low-income" households as any that make less than 80 percent of the median income of the area where they live; "very low-income" households make less than 50 percent.

In most cases, to qualify for Section 8 you need to be very low-income, but merely low-income households can qualify if they meet one of these additional criteria, mostly amounting to having previously gotten subsidized housing (presumably at an earlier time when the household's income was lower):

  • Families previously receiving subsidies through public housing, Section 23 (another subsidized housing program), or Section 8
  • Families that are non-purchasing tenants of certain homeownership programs
  • Families displaced from certain Section 221 and 236 projects (meaning displacement based on natural disaster or community redevelopment)

In addition, the program takes into account certain other factors, which can move households higher up the waitlist.

Households with the following attributes can get preferences:

  • Military veterans — although there is a separate VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) program, which, in addition to housing vouchers, provides case management for veterans seeking stability and health care. The VASH program, like Section 8, is run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Elderly, near-elderly (defined as those over 55), or disabled individuals
  • Households displaced by hate crimes or domestic violence
  • Households displaced by natural disaster or public action

In demographic terms, voucher recipients are disproportionately black or African-American, but most of them are white:

How much money do you get?

Voucher holders don't get money from the government — instead, money is paid directly to landlords.

Under Section 8, tenants spend 30 percent of their income on rent, and the program covers the remainder. Each public housing authority calculates the maximum that can be spent on a house based on an analysis of what rent and utilities should look like for a given house's size and location.

First, the housing authority determines housing size, based on the number of household members and its composition. For example, a mother and a son living together would likely be given a two-bedroom voucher, whereas a couple could be given a one-bedroom voucher, even though both households have the same number of members. And a family living in a high-cost area would receive a larger voucher than an identical family living someplace cheaper.

Does Section 8 cover all housing costs?

No. Section 8 vouchers do not cover security deposits, which can cost up to a full month's rent. They also don't pay for first and last month's rent, which some landlords require at move-in.

Where can you use Section 8?

There are two ways to use Section 8: project-based or tenant-based.

Project-based Section 8 means the vouchers are tied to a public housing project. This comes with some caveats: most notably, if a household decides to move out of a specific project, the members cannot bring their voucher (and the subsidy) with them. This means if a family wants to move (because of safety concerns, tension with the neighbors, or even stalking), they will jeopardize their access to shelter.

Tenant-based Section 8 allows voucher holders more flexibility. Instead of being confined to a housing project, voucher holders may use their subsidy on any apartment or house, assuming that it meets price and health code requirements. And tenant-based vouchers move with the household — meaning that if a family wants to move, they are free to use their Section 8 voucher on another house or apartment. And since Section 8 is a federal program, families can take their vouchers across state lines if they move.

Can tenant-based vouchers be used anywhere?

Technically yes, given that the apartment meets health and safety codes.

Although there are no federal laws on the books, most states have laws forbidding Section 8 discrimination — the practice of refusing to rent to tenants because they use Section 8 vouchers, or because they must submit to certain requirements because of their vouchers. That said, discrimination can still occur.

Landlords may lie about apartment availability to voucher holders, or attempt to force them into less-desirable rooms (a process known as "steering").

Why do landlords discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders? Part of it can be stigma against those on welfare programs. In addition, housing funded by Section 8 must go through annual inspections, which can pose trouble for landlords leasing out illegal or substandard apartments.

Why are the waitlists so long?

Blame budget cuts. Automatic sequestration has taken a toll on HUD and Section 8 budgets since 2012.

Shocking numbers of people need and deserve subsidized housing: a recent study from Harvard found that half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Tight budgets have also forced half of the nation's public housing authorities to close their Section 8 waitlists, leaving poor Americans with fewer options.

Last fall, when Baltimore opened up its Section 8 waitlist for the first time in 10 years, nearly 74,000 households signed up. Of those thousands, only 25,000 were randomly selected to be placed on the waiting list — and of that fraction, at most 9,000 are likely to receive support. The next time the waitlists open in Baltimore is 2020.

Short of billions of extra dollars, are there ways Section 8 could be improved?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Crack down on housing discrimination: This will probably involve more than making discrimination illegal, since this is already the case in many states. Instead, public housing authorities should do a better job of educating voucher holders about their rights and also ensure there is a system for lodging complaints against discriminatory landlords.
  • Give voucher holders a longer time to look for housing: Currently, Section 8 vouchers are issued for a period of 60 days. This means that voucher holders have less than two months to find a suitable house or apartment that meets price and safety criteria. Although tenants do have the option of applying for extensions, in practice these extensions are hard to come by.
  • Expand housing authority business hours: This actually goes for most other government offices, state and federal. If people are working a standard job, it can be virtually impossible for them to visit their local housing authority without jeopardizing their job and source of income.