Supportive housing residents are forming a tenants union — the first of its kind for New Yorkers who live in apartments for formerly homeless people receiving on-site social services.
The 15 members of Supportive Housing Organized and United Tenants, or SHOUT, met for the first time on Thursday when they rallied at City Hall calling for passage of a Bill of Rights demanding better treatment from nonprofit organizations and city government.
“It’s about time that this gets done and we’re leading the charge,” said Xena Grandichelli, who has been living in a supportive housing facility in The Bronx for nearly a decade.
Supportive housing is designed as a haven for the formerly homeless but has also been the scene of conflict — including the 2019 police killing of Kawaski Trawick at his apartment door in The Bronx.
More than 35,000 New Yorkers live in supportive housing, a model that emerged in the 1980s as a way to end cycles of chronic homelessness for people with substance abuse disorder, mental illness or other destabilizing conditions.
Residents of supportive housing live in private or semi-private rooms and receive on-site medical and social services.
SHOUT members, who hail from every borough except Staten Island, came together online starting in April.
They bonded over their shared challenges and recollections of their struggles getting a spot in supportive housing. Finding the right match between an applicant and a residence can take months or even years — leaving legions in homeless shelters.
‘We Have Rights’
Kat Corbell, 43, recounted a tortuous road to her supportive housing apartment in The Bronx.
During her application process starting about five years ago, one supportive housing provider told her that she could not move into the facility with her cat — even though the pet was an emotional-support animal, Corbell said.
She claimed a staff member reviewing applications for another provider rejected her because she did not have a drug addiction — a reason Corbell found not good enough to keep her homeless.
“Their job is to be a housing coordinator. Not a psychiatrist, not a physician, not a therapist,” Corbell said.
It took her more than two years to find placement in her current supportive housing unit, she said.
The Bill of Rights, introduced in the Council last December, would be distributed to all residents and inform them of their rights under anti-discrimination laws, the city housing code, and — if applicable — rent stabilization.
The measure would also spell out tenants’ right to have family members or other occupants live with them, as permitted under state law. The city Department of Social Services would issue $250 fines for violations — and name the offending provider and results of its investigation on the department website.
And the bill calls for informing tenants and their advocates what government programs the apartment is part of, helping them identify any violations of rules or regulations.
“We are asking for basic rights that other New York tenants have,” said Corbell. “Tenants have rights. We have rights.”
Picking and Choosing
Residents also want to remove hurdles in a convoluted application process.
SHOUT members decried what they called “creaming” by housing organizations — allegedly rejecting high-needs people who would benefit most from supportive housing.
Supportive housing units are intended for people who have substance abuse or severe mental health issues requiring regular, on-site medical and psychiatric care.
But in practice, those working with residents say, some of the neediest are shut out of spots in supportive housing units or a related “supported housing” model, which consist of scatter-site apartments with access to services.
Meanwhile, they add, some homeless people who don’t need around-the-clock, on-site care end up in supportive housing.
“Supportive housing has to be part of a broad array of housing options that meet people where they are when they’re exiting homelessness. And for some people, supportive housing makes a lot of sense,” Jenny Akchin, a staff attorney at TakeRoot Justice who has advised SHOUT. “And for other people, they are being tracked that way because of an absence of other options that might be more appropriate for them.”
Another Council bill, introduced in 2018, would require the city to issue annual reports on the number of supportive housing applicants, move-ins and rejections — and include the stated reasons for turning anyone away.
That documentation is already available through public records requests. The Safety Net Project, a legal team at the Urban Justice Center, shared the results of past such requests with THE CITY.
Among the stated reasons for rejecting applicants:
- “We think he needs a more structured environment than we can offer,”
- “No interest in engaging in any programatic activities, nor engage [sic] with other residents. No interest in education at all.”
- “Declined/due to SRO not allowing pets.”
‘We’re Not Backing Down’
SHOUT and the residents’ allies say they hope Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) will bring the bills to a vote before his term ends Dec. 31. The sponsor of both bills, Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), will also be leaving next month due to term limits.
A spokesperson for Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Kate Smart, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said, “All residents of supportive housing deserve to know their rights and we’re proud to support this bill.”
Mayor-elect Eric Adams has seized on supportive housing as central to his plan to address persistent homelessness, committing to convert hotel rooms outside Manhattan to single-room residences and adding 15,000 units in the next 15 years.
A spokesperson for the Adams campaign did not respond to THE CITY’s requests for comment.
Residents say they are ready to advocate for themselves and others in their ranks.
“We’re the first-ever coalition to organize. Somebody had to pick up the ball and run with it and lead the charge. Why not us? We’re tenants, and if we don’t do it, nobody will,” Grandichelli said.
“We’re not backing down and not giving up. We’re going to see this through.”