Could Your Property Pass a Section 8 Inspection?
If you're involved in the rental business it won't be long before you hear about Section 8. Chances are good that you've heard of it even if you aren't involved with renting. It's bandied about by NIMBY residents who don't want poor people living in their neighborhood. You see, "Section 8" refers to a portion of the US Housing Act of 1937, which authorized the government to pay rent on behalf of residents who would not otherwise be able to afford it. While it generally is used by low income residents, it's also used in some occasions to assist people who have lost their homes to natural disasters, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina.
In Chicago it's administered by the Chicago Housing Authority and utilizes two main types of homes: those owned and managed by CHA, and privately owned apartment buildings throughout the city.
Say what you will about the less affluent members of society - the main issue we're addressing today surrounds the condition of their housing. Private landlords who choose to accept housing choice voucher holders (the proper name for "Section 8 tenants") are required to keep their rents below the government specified "fair market rate." This can cause landlords to cut corners on the quality of maintenance, so HUD requires that apartments be inspected before the tenants move in and that they get reinspected yearly.
Speaking as someone who's worked with voucher holders before, I can safely say that it's one of the most stringent inspections you could put an apartment through. I've seen many apartments in multiple neighborhoods and at a range of prices that would not pass. Fortunately HUD makes its inspection criteria freely available. The form is #52580-A. You can download a fillable PDF version here, but hold your horses because today I'm going to go through all of the criteria with you so you can see if your property would pass.
Ok, here's how it works. You've gotten an application and you've submitted your paperwork to the CHA. An inspector has set up an appointment (with a six hour window) and you've waited the whole time. He's finally here with his checklist. If your unit fails any of the following items, it fails the entire inspection. You have to fix the failed items, schedule another inspection, pay a $75 fee, and repeat the process until you pass. The following criteria are the ones specified in the current version of the form. It says that they're valid through 2014 but as always, use your discretion and remember that they could change well before then.
- There must be a living room. If it's a studio, the main room counts.
- The living room and all bedrooms must each have two working outlets. (Not two plug receptacles in one box - two actual outlets in different locations in the room.) The kitchen must have one working outlet. The bathroom does not need one.
- The living room, kitchen, bathroom and all bedrooms must each have at least one working light fixture. All other rooms, hallways, stairs and foyers and additional bathrooms used on a regular basis should have some form of light, be it a window, an outlet for a lamp, or a ceiling fixture.
- There should be no broken, frayed or uninsulated wiring. There should be no broken connections, improper wiring, or missing insulation. No wires in standing water. No light fixtures supported only by their wires. No missing outlet covers or switchplate covers. No cracked outlets, exposed fuse connections, or overloaded circuits.
- All doors and windows to the outside must be able to be locked.
- The living room and all bedrooms must each have at least one window.
- No broken or severely deteriorated windows or frames.
- Ceiling should have no large cracks, holes, bulging, buckling or missing parts.
- Same for the walls and floor.
- The floor should not move substantially when you walk on it.
- If the home was built prior to 1978 and children under the age of 6 will be living there, any areas of damaged paint more than 2 sq ft in area inside and 20 sq ft on the outside of the building should be fixed.
- There must be a kitchen area.
- It must have working oven and a working stove, or at least a microwave oven. Microwaves as replacements for stoves are only OK if other tenants in the building have the same setup.
- Also it should have a fridge that can keep food safely cold and a sink in the kitchen with hot & cold running water. (If the tenants are supplying their own fridge or stove the inspector may waive these two criteria at the first inspection.)
- There must be space to store, prepare and serve food. This could be a cabinet with counter or a storage box & folding table. (This one could be excused at the tenants' discretion.)
- The toilet must be fully enclosed in an area separate from the main living space.
- There must be separate sinks for washing and cooking, and a working tub or shower with hot & cold running water.
- The bathroom needs to have some sort of ventilation, either a window, ventilation shaft or working exhaust fan.
- Each level of the home needs to have a working smoke detector. If any of the tenants are hearing impaired the smoke detectors must be configured for such use.
- The heat source must be able to heat the entire home to safe temperatures.
- The heat source cannot be a kerosene heater or wood-burning stove.
- One must be able to sufficiently cool the unit down in the summer by opening windows or using a central AC system.
- The water heater should be properly installed and working.
- The water supply should be safe and clean.
- No plumbing leaks and no rust contamination in the water.
- There must be some sort of sewer system which is free from backups.
- The apartment must be free of rodents and other pests. (Note: if your baseboards are not flush with the floor, you will fail. Mice are squishy and can get in through an opening the diameter of a ballpoint pen.)
- No major garbage or construction debris can be visible inside or outside.
- Apartment air quality must be clear of dust, pollution, gas odors and other dangerous fumes.
- Heating systems must be able to attain 68 degrees Fahrenheit from September 15 through June 1.
- Windows and doors must be weather-tight.
- Bedrooms must all be at least 70 sq ft.
- Ceilings in at least 75% of the unit must be at least 7 feet high.
- Carbon monoxide detectors are required eithin 15 feet of any system that burns fossil fuels (furnaces and stoves) and within 15 feet of each room used for sleeping.
- Smoke detectors must be installed within 15 feet of each room used for sleeping. (This is in addition to the requirement of one per floor.)
- Entrance doors must have deadbolt locks. Deadbolts that require keys to open on both sides are not allowed - only the outside lock should require a key. Locks that use "skeleton" keys are not acceptable.
- All utilities must be on and working, including those that the tenant will pay for, at the time of the initial inspection.
- Water heaters need to have an extension pipe from the pressure release valve to at least 6 inches above the floor to keep from spraying boiling water in the face of any potential residents.
- No broken steps, loose handrails or blown light fixtures in stairwells.
- Elevators must have current inspection certificates.
- Foundation should be in good repair.
- Exterior stairs, railings and porches should be secure, and in Chicago the porches must be able to support at least 100 pounds per square foot.
- The roof, gutters and downspouts should all be intact with no sagging, holes or signs of damage.
- Exterior surfaces and chimney should all be clear of major holes, cracks, shifting, damage, crumbling and hazards.
- You must be able to enter the unit without walking through another apartment.
- There must be at least one fire exit.
- A covered trash receptacle on-site is required.
- The site and neighborhood should be clear of severely dangerous conditions. (By this they mean flooding, mudslides, wildfires, open sewage, fire hazards, unprotected heights, major air pollution, or other buildings nearby that are likely to collapse.)
So did your apartment pass? If so, you should feel great! After all, in 2009 an audit of the CHA by HUD found that 80 to 84% of a statistically neutral sample of properties occupied by voucher holders did not. 35% failed twice in a row. However, if you don't think your home or apartment would pass, maybe it's time to start setting aside some cash for repairs. After all, if HUD considers the criteria above to be the absolute minimum for acceptable housing, why would you subject yourself to less?