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The original federal housing assistance program that would eventually become Section 8 was established in the US Housing Act of 1937 during the Great Depression due to the housing crisis accompanying a massive economic collapse. The US Housing Act of 1937 itself was built upon the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration and was another Great Depression bill enacted to make housing more affordable. The United States Housing Authority was created by the 1937 bill to control and manage the payment of subsidies.

Federal housing assistance began to resemble modern Section 8 more in 1961, with the Section 23 Leased Housing Program, which was designed to increase low income housing. The Leased Housing Program allowed local housing authorities to take eligible familes from waiting lists, place them in housing, and determine their what the families were to pay. The program would then pay the difference between the families payment and the landlord's rent as well as perform building maintenance for the tenants.

The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 actually created the Section 8 Program, to address the high proportion of income spent on housing. As a result, Section 8 tenants now pay about 30% of their income for rent, and the local housing authority pays the difference.

More recently, Section 8 was expanded in some areas to cover assistance for mortgage payments in addition to assistance with rent.

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