Mitchell-Lama Housing
(Column: Ask the Housing Experts)
What is it and how does it compare to mental health housing?
Daniel J. Stern, Housing Consultant, Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS) & Vuka Stricevic, Co-Chair, Public Policy Committee, NYAPRS
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Mitchell-Lama Housing By Columnists Daniel J. Stern, Housing Consultation Coordinator/Trainer and Vuka Stricevic, Community Organizer, Center for Urban Community Services

It seems that most of us have heard about someone living in Mitchell-Lama housing, but for too many of us this affordable housing program remains a mystery. The questions so many of us ask are: What is Mitchell-Lama housing? Who is eligible? Are there any vacancies? How would such housing compare to mental health housing?

Mitchell-Lama Housing and the Eligibility Requirements:

In 1955, Senator MacNeil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama proposed a law to increase the supply of affordable housing throughout New York State. Shortly following the law's passage, housing developers began to build affordable rental and cooperative housing for moderate and middle-income New Yorkers, appropriately called Mitchell-Lama housing. Presently, both the State and the City sponsor Mitchell-Lama programs by offering housing developers incentives such as low-interest loans and tax breaks to create new housing.

Funded through New York State's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the State currently sponsors over 65,000 units of Mitchell-Lama housing throughout New York City. Additionally, New York City sponsors nearly 57,000 units of housing through the Department of Housing and Preservation Development. Some of these units are also subsidized by the Federal government and receive Section 8 or Section 236 subsidies, which enable tenants to pay only 30% of their income for rent. Thus, an individual with a Section 8 subsidy is also eligible for Mitchell-Lama housing, as long as the tenant meets the other selection criteria.

Income requirements for Mitchell-Lama housing vary by development, household size, and rent rates. However, in City-sponsored projects the eligibility is generally based on the area median income. Thus, a single-person household would not be found eligible if they earned more than $42,937 per year, and a 2-person household would not be eligible if they made more than $50,250 per year. State-sponsored programs consider both the median income as well as a formula tied to the rent rates. For instance, a household of three people or less cannot have an annual income that is greater than seven times the annual rent for the unit.

Mitchell-Lama Housing Vacancies:

New Yorkers consistently face long waits for Mitchell-Lama housing as access hinges on infrequently-held lotteries. For the majority of prospective applicants, there is no master waiting list, rather applicants must apply directly to the management of each Mitchell-Lama site to become part of the individual site's lottery. While vacancies are primarily filled through this lottery system, City-sponsored programs also house an internal transfer list which grants priority to veterans and families who have had a significant changes in their family size or composition. At the same time, some sites don't have waiting lists as their sites have enough applications on file to fill any anticipated vacancies.

Another component of the program which affects the already-low vacancy rate is the "buy-out" provision. As a result of multiple amendments, after 20 years of operating affordable housing programs, housing developers may buy-out the site once they have paid all expenses due from the project and then sell and/or rent units at market rate. This "buy-out" provision continues to emerge as perhaps the most significant barrier to accessing this affordable housing. In July 2003, the New York City Council introduced legislation which would protect residents of City-sponsored units who face "buy-outs." If this law passes, owners of City-sponsored Mitchell-Lama buildings will be required to give tenants 18-months notice before "buying-out" and raising rent levels. To learn more about current program vacancies, interested applicants can call (212) 863-6500 for City-sponsored Mitchell-Lama units or (212) 480-7343 for State-sponsored Mitchell-Lama information.

Mitchell-Lama Housing Compared to Mental Health Housing:

Mitchell-Lama housing, even with strict eligibility requirements, an unpredictable lottery system, and looming "buy-outs," is by far one of the nation's most tremendous efforts to creatively merge resources and develop affordable housing for low and moderate income individuals and families. While Mitchell-Lama programs offer thousands of New Yorkers safe and affordable places to live, this housing significantly differs from even the most independent forms of mental health housing. In short, Mitchell-Lama housing is not a model of mental health housing, rather it is simply publicly subsidized housing and does not include any on-site supportive services. Thus, a person who needs assistance from a social worker would need to find this service in a community-based agency.

To be eligible for mental health supportive housing, applicants must have a serious and persistent mental illness as defined by the State of New York. While income is not the primary factor like it is in Mitchell-Lama housing, applicants for mental health housing also will need to have some form of documented, sustainable income, like Supplemental Security Income, Public Assistance or wages. In terms of vacancies, the mental health system is also difficult to access. In a system of more than 10,000 units citywide, at any given time there are usually between 200 and 300 available units. This might seem like a lot, but there are usually dozens of individual applicants vying for any given vacancy. This competition, combined with the corresponding lack of available housing leaves many individuals on waiting lists or in limbo.

Thankfully, unlike Mitchell-Lama housing, the number of mental health supportive units has remained stable and they are not being converted to market rate housing units. In fact, there are several advocacy initiatives underway that are seeking additional housing for people with mental illness and other special needs in New York City. Some of the more well-known campaigns are the New York/New York III Campaign, the Blueprint to End Homelessness, and the House Every One! Campaign.Additionally, there is not the risk of skyrocketing rents in supportive housing as there is in Mitchell-Lama housing.

A key thing to consider when deciding whether to pursue supportive housing or other affordable housing is whether the applicant will be able to remain stable and housed (and hopefully thrive) in unserviced housing. If the answer is anything other than a solid yes, then applicants should at least consider supportive housing as a way to maintain their housing and reduce their risk of becoming homeless, perhaps as a stepping stone to an independent unserviced apartment.

If you have questions about supportive housing and what services might be right for you or your applicant, please contact the CUCS Housing Resource Center, at (212) 801-3333.
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