The city’s previous policy, which City Limits reported on last month, blocked adults approved for supportive housing—permanent apartments with on-site staff, typically reserved for people with mental illness—from even applying for the roughly 8,000 new rental subsidies.

Adi Talwar

Apartment buildings in Manhattan.

New York City officials have loosened eligibility restrictions for thousands of newly available federal housing vouchers, following complaints that the previous criteria locked out thousands of homeless residents based on their presumed mental health status.

The city housing agencies administering the subsidies had initially blocked adults approved for supportive housing—permanent apartments with on-site staff, typically reserved for people with mental illness—from even applying for the roughly 8,000 new rental subsidies, City Limits reported last month. A few weeks later, officials reversed that decision after advocates criticized the policy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development said they were looking into claims of discrimination.

In an Aug. 11 email to nonprofit service providers, Department of Homeless Services (DHS) First Deputy Commissioner Molly Wasow Park said the city would make New Yorkers with active supportive housing applications, known as 2010e packets, eligible for the vouchers.

“We are expanding EHV referral opportunities to include clients with an active 2010e in the hopes that these combined resources help even more individuals in need get back on their feet for the long term,” Wasow Park wrote in the email, which was viewed by City Limits.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed the new rules in a statement Tuesday.

“Our goal is to connect as many New Yorkers as possible to stable, independent housing, and we’re grateful for the federal government’s investment,” said the spokesperson, Mitch Schwartz.

The decision to expand eligibility comes after advocates—including some members of the city’s Continuum of Care Steering Committee, which helps guide homeless policy—said excluding people with 2010e applications effectively barred thousands of New Yorkers from accessing needed housing.

Homeless New Yorkers, regardless of their mental health status, are typically encouraged to complete 2010e applications as one possible avenue out of shelters or off the streets. But supportive housing approval does not guarantee an applicant will get one of the few available units. New York City has about 32,000 supportive housing apartments, most of them occupied, and only one in five applicants end up getting an apartment, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

The city’s initial policy only limited access to housing and served as a proxy for mental health disability discrimination, said Sandra Gresl, a senior staff attorney with Mobilization for Justice’s Mental Health Law Project. “They’re being excluded solely because they sought a benefit linked to disability status,” Gresl said last month.

The 7,788 new subsidies, administered by NYCHA and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), will function like Section 8 vouchers and cover the monthly rent for low-income families and individuals. The subsidies could put a significant dent in New York’s homeless population. There were 45,202 New Yorkers, including 8,342 families with children, living in DHS shelters on Sunday, city data shows.

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. Under HUD provisions, the additional vouchers will go to people at risk of becoming homeless and individuals and families fleeing domestic violence or trafficking.

De Blasio’s office said the city plans to allocate most of the vouchers over the course of this month. They did not respond to a question about how many vouchers have so far been distributed.

Advocates for the rights of homeless New Yorkers welcomed the decision to open the new vouchers to supportive housing applicants, but noted that it took weeks of advocacy to spark the change.

“It’s positive the city made this change. It only took community outcry, intervention from the federal government, and the reality of facing a potential lawsuit for discriminating against people with disabilities,” said Craig Hughes, a supervising social worker at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.

“Hopefully this is a precedent that makes them quickly reconsider using eligibility for supportive housing—which rarely means someone actually gets a supportive housing apartment—as a way to cut off other housing options for homeless people.”