Supported Housing Crisis in New York City
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
Lisa R. Green, Supervising Attorney, Mental Health Law Project, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
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Question: What stands in the way of mental health consumers getting permanent housing? Answer: In the 1970s, the deinstitutionalization movement took hold as our society began to realize the ineffectiveness and horrors of isolating mental health consumers in psychiatric institutions. Recognizing that people with serious mental illnesses would need assistance in securing housing and support services in the community, states began developing community residences, group homes, and apartment programs. Although these supportive housing programs enabled people to live in the community, they had several limitations. The biggest problem was that they were transitional, meaning that consumers could only live there for a temporary period of time and were expected to move on as their recovery progressed. But having to continuously move from place to place is disruptive to one's life and can be stressful. Furthermore, many mental health consumers did not need the high level of care and support provided to residents in most of these housing programs.

So, in 1990, the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) created a program called Supported Housing that was to provide "permanent" housing options for mental health consumers. Through this program OMH provides funding that allows agencies to (1) secure apartments in the community for mental health consumers to live in and (2) provide them with some minimal support services (such as weekly visits from a case manager). The mental health consumers pay 30% of their monthly income toward the rent, and the rest is subsidized by OMH.

During its first decade, the Supported Housing program proved extremely popular and successful. Thousands of mental health consumers have been living independently in their own apartments, and say that their stable housing situation has truly led to recovery. However, due to the skyrocketing rental market in New York City, the Supported Housing program is now facing a serious crisis as landlords realize over the past year that they can command higher rents than what a Supported Housing provider can afford to pay with the level of OMH funding that is available. A number of these landlords are therefore not renewing Supported Housing leases.

Over the past year, close to 60 mental health consumers have contacted the Mental Health Law Project at MFY Legal Services seeking legal assistance after having received legal notices that they were being evicted. For those living in co-ops, there are no protections under the New York rent regulations and landlords of co-ops can freely evict tenants once a lease comes to an end. For consumers living in apartments that are technically covered by the rent regulations and technically entitled to renewal leases, there is no protection for the consumer if his/her name is not on the lease with the provider's. There is prior case law in effect in New York that has denied rent protections to agencies, based on the theory that only an individual person has the right to a renewal lease. Therefore, those agencies who have their name on the lease rather than the Supported Housing tenant's name are also facing the loss of apartments that they hoped would be "permanent."

MFY has been representing the mental health consumer tenants in these cases. We try to raise technical defenses, but ultimately most of our clients do not have legal rights to remain in their apartments. Thus, MFY has also worked with OMH to ensure that all of the mental health consumers are appropriately relocated to other stable housing. Unfortunately, because the subsidy that OMH provides is well below the market rent for apartments in most of Manhattan and other popular areas in the outer boroughs, these Supported Housing tenants are being moved to less desirable neighborhoods. Thus, although consumers are being provided with "permanent" housing in the sense that the agencies continue to provide them with a roof over their heads by moving them to new apartments, we are seeing a breakdown of what was once thought to be the most promising feature of the Supported Housing program-permanency.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem. The most obvious is the need for an increase in the state subsidy for Supported Housing. The current amount is simply not enough to pay for a decent apartment in New York City. The other is to have the Supported Housing providers take precautions when renting apartments. First, they should avoid renting co-ops or other housing that is not protected by the rent stabilization laws. Second, they should include the individual names of the tenants on the leases along with the name of the Supported Housing provider. This way, the protections of rent regulations will be applicable and the landlords will not be able to evict the Supported Housing providers.

The Supported Housing crisis is, of course, one of many symptoms of the lack of affordable housing in New York City. It is therefore very important to preserve every unit possible of this dwindling supply.
If you have any questions about Supported Housing, you may call the Mental Health Law Project's intake line at 212-417-3830.
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