The Section 8 program is named for the part of the federal Housing and Community Development Act that created the program in 1974. The law says the program was started "for the purpose of aiding lower-income families in obtaining a decent place to live and of promoting economically mixed housing."

Under the program, tenants who qualify because of income pay 25 percent of their incomes - before deductions - in rents and HUD pays the difference. The program is used in three forms:

One is for new apartments where builders get a commitment for money from HUD before they build.

Another is for already existing apartments where a tenant arranges with a landlord and the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) for HUD to pay the part of the rent the tenant cannot pay.

The third is for apartment building being rehabilitated.

In general, the number of households needing help far exceeds the amount of Section 8 money the government allocates to the Washington metropolitan area. Even though moderate-income persons (a family of four making $18,000) qualify for this program, it is mostly persons with very low incomes who are accepted. The average income of a Section 8 tenant in Montgomery is $5,126 and in Prince George's it is $5,036.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional planning board, has the authority to divide the Section 8 money among area jurisdictions. "Ideally the purpose of our formula is to both meet the needs and distribute lower-income housing so it's concentrated in any one area," said COG planner Fred Selden.