Adults approved for supportive housing will be precluded from applying for the federal rent vouchers—which attorneys and advocates say cuts off a path to housing for thousands of shelter residents and functions as a proxy for mental health disability discrimination.

Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office.

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a housing-related press conference in 2017.

New York City officials are preparing to distribute nearly 8,000 new federal housing vouchers to homeless residents, but advocates warn that thousands of income-eligible people could be locked out because of their supposed mental health needs.

The agencies overseeing the newly released rental subsidies have informed providers that adults approved for supportive housing—permanent apartments with on-site services, typically reserved for people with mental health diagnoses—will be precluded from applying for the vouchers. Attorneys and advocates for homeless New Yorkers say that policy cuts off a path to housing for thousands of shelter residents and functions as a proxy for mental health disability discrimination.

“They’re being excluded solely because they sought a benefit linked to disability status,” said Sandra Gresl, a senior staff attorney with Mobilization for Justice’s Mental Health Law Project.

In addition, being approved for supportive housing doesn’t mean an applicant will actually land a supportive housing unit, since demand for the apartments greatly outweighs supply. The city is home to more than 32,000 supportive units, but only one in five applicants approved for them are successful in scoring one, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

In May, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued 7,788 emergency housing vouchers (EHVs) to two city agencies, NYCHA and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), to distribute to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, people at risk of becoming homeless and individuals and families fleeing domestic violence or trafficking. The much-needed rental vouchers were included in the most recent federal stimulus package and will cover rents for low-income tenants in privately-owned apartments.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office says the city plans to allocate most of the vouchers to people who are currently homeless starting in August. There were 45,289 New Yorkers, including 8,306 families with children, living in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters as of July 25, according to the city’s most recent daily census report.

A memorandum of understanding among the city agencies overseeing the program indicates that 75 percent of the vouchers (5,810) will go to people experiencing homelessness, including 600 subsidies for young adults.

The vouchers will be “a major tool in building a recovery for all of us,” said de Blasio Spokesperson Mitch Schwartz in a statement.

“We’re proud of our efforts to make that resource available for New Yorkers who are homeless and at risk of homelessness, including many who weren’t previously eligible for Section 8 vouchers,” Schwartz added.

A City Hall spokesperson said supportive housing applicants are not explicitly excluded, but agencies will prioritize people who do not have access to other housing programs. However,  city administrators have informed providers that homeless New Yorkers who have been approved for supportive housing after submitting an application package known as a 2010e will be prevented from applying for the emergency vouchers. Those completing the in-depth 2010e applications must include information about prescribed psychiatric medications and submit a psychosocial evaluation from a psychiatrist describing whether or not they have a mental illness that could qualify them for supportive housing.

During a virtual EHV application training on July 14, Human Resources Administration Deputy Commissioner Craig Retchless informed hundreds of providers that people who have submitted 2010e packets and been approved for supportive housing will not be considered for the new vouchers. Individuals can submit EHV applications only after being assessed through the city’s existing Coordinated Assessment and Placement System (CAPS), a housing and services portal engaging various city agencies and nonprofit providers.

“The EHV program does not come with housing services like supportive housing. That’s important to know because if your client is in need of that type of service, you should really consider they go down … that route of a supportive housing application rather than going the route of an EHV application with NYCHA,” Retchless said. 

If CAPS shows that an individual has submitted a 2010e and been approved for supportive housing, the portal will not allow them to apply for an EHV, he added. “Additionally, you should note you will not get an EHV result if you have an approved 2010e application for your client,” Retchless said. 

A City Hall spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry from City Limits about Retchless’ comments, and how they appear to conflict with the city’s claim that it is not explicitly excluding those approved for supportive housing.

Following Retchless’ remarks, NYCHA Senior Adviser Melissa Renwick addressed other questions about application eligibility. She encouraged providers to consider which of their clients are most likely to maintain the subsidy for years to come because, as with portable Section 8 subsidies, voucher recipients will be required to complete annual recertifications.

“Remember this is a very scarce resource. We have a very limited number so there is a level of prioritization that’s taking place at each agency to basically determine which of their client population is going to get these referrals and get these vouchers,” Renwick said. “You need to think holistically about which of your clients are independent enough to be successful on a tenant-based Section 8 program because that is how EHV will operate.”

Advocates and lawyers for homeless New Yorkers say the remarks show that the city is discriminating against applicants strictly based on their mental health disability status and effectively stranding them in shelters. 

Gresl, of Mobilization for Justice, noted that only a fraction of homeless applicants actually move into the city’s limited number of vacant supportive housing units each year and said locking them out of the newly issued housing vouchers will further limit their housing options.

Many New Yorkers who complete 2010e applications while living in homeless shelters do experience serious mental illness and would benefit from supportive services, but simply submitting the 2010e forms does not mean someone has a mental health disability that precludes them from living independently, she added.

“It’s not like there were some legal proceedings finding someone not competent,” Gresl said.

Shelter residents work with staff to submit 2010e applications as they search for any opportunity to exit city shelters, said Homeless Services United Director Catherine Trapani, a member of the city’s Continuum of Care Steering Committee, which helps guide city homelessness policy.

“Supportive housing eligibility ought not to preclude someone from being eligible for EHV because the circumstances of the individual can vary quite a bit within the group that’s eligible for supportive housing,” Trapani said. “It should be a conversation between the applicant and the provider and I don’t think eligibility alone should be the determining factor.”

Attorneys and organizers have notified HUD about the city’s policy in emails shared with City Limits, and HUD officials responded that they would review the complaint about the policy violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“HUD is looking into this issue,” agency spokesperson Olga Alvarez told City Limits.

Craig Hughes, a social work supervisor at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, said he found the policy particularly confounding because New Yorkers with active supportive housing applications can still be approved for city-funded rental vouchers, known as CityFHEPS. 

“The CityFHEPS subsidy is no more ‘supportive’ than Section 8—they are both market subsidies,” Hughes wrote in an email to HUD administrators. “However, [the Department of Social Services] is precluding access to the EHV vouchers for people with a supportive housing application because they argue the latter shows individuals need more support.” 

“In the exact same scenario with the local rental subsidy, however, DSS is using a standard that someone’s supportive housing application doesn’t impact their ability to live in the community,” he added. “The city’s approach to distributing the EHV vouchers is disability discrimination on its face.”

DHS, HPD and NYCHA directed questions about the policy to City Hall, which highlighted the lack of on-site supportive services included with the EHVs.

The additional rental assistance vouchers come at a crucial moment, as New York City housing agencies make progress toward resolving a decades-long homelessness crisis. Recent policies like a right to an attorney in housing court, the purchase and conversion of shelter units into permanent housing and the work of city and nonprofit staff have driven down the number of families with children living in shelters to the lowest total in a decade.

Nevertheless, the number of homeless single adults has more than doubled over that same period—though there were 1,150 fewer New Yorkers in DHS adult shelters on July 21 compared to an average night in January.

A few recent measures could enable more of those families and single adults to get housed, including a bill passed by the City Council to increase the value of CityFHEPS rental vouchers to Section 8 levels. The current value of the subsidies, which cover a year’s rent for families and individuals moving out of shelter, have lagged well behind actual market rates, leaving many voucher holders unable to find an appropriate apartment. DSS points out that thousands of CityFHEPS recipients have managed to rent apartments with the vouchers even before the increase, however. 

A group of Democratic nominees for City Council joined Councilmember Brad Lander and homeless advocates in urging de Blasio to sign the bill and implement the value increase immediately so that more homeless New Yorkers can find permanent apartments. 

On the federal level, Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres has introduced legislation, known as the Ending Homelessness Act of 2021, to add 3.5 million federal Section 8 vouchers for certain low-income tenants nationwide by 2025. 

The vouchers would go to households that earn less than 15 percent of Area Median Income (less than $12,540 for an individual and $17,895 for a family of four in New York City), who make 50 percent or less of the federal poverty rate, or who are considered “extremely low-income,” meaning they earn less than 30 percent of AMI, and have a member receiving Social Security benefits.

Roughly 270,000 New York City households meet that criteria, according to analysis by the New York Housing Conference.

Trapani said the vouchers provided by Torres’ bill could ensure nearly all New Yorkers can access housing, and would eliminate the potentially discriminatory cost-benefit analyses the city now faces with the EHV process. 

“We would be there to shelter you, to provide you with whatever support services you need, the shelter system would be a lot smaller, stays would be short and you could solve a lot of issues,” she said.