New law aims at increasing housing opportunities for low-income disabled

WASHINGTON–Try finding an apartment in Glastonbury for a young adult who is mentally ill, never finished high school, and is currently unemployed.

“It’s almost impossible,” said Kim Beauregard, CEO of InterCommunity Inc., a nonprofit agency that serves adults and children living with mental illness and addiction problems.

For the seven towns her agency serves, from East Hartford to Rocky Hill, she has 16 federally-funded apartments in which to place InterCommunity’s often desperate clients. The agency serves more than 2,000 people a year, not counting kids.

“The need is just so great,” she said.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed into law a measure that could significantly ease the crisis her clients face.

The new law is designed to expand access to so-called “supportive housing,” units for low-income people with serious physical or mental disabilities. These individuals are able to live independently in a community, but they need services, such as mental health counseling, job training skills, or other assistance.

Two Connecticut lawmakers, Rep. Chris Murphy and retiring Sen. Chris Dodd, played a leading role in winning passage of the legislation, the Frank Melville Supportive Housing Investment Act. And Connecticut, already a leader in providing so-called “supportive housing,” may stand to benefit more than other states.

“We’ve made good progress in Connecticut [on providing supportive housing], but without much help from the federal government,” Murphy said.

That’s because, while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had a program designed to help finance apartments for this hard-to-house population, it had become “wildly inefficient,” Murphy said. “The dollars were remaining static and not being spread very far.”

And developers seeking to build new units faced a tangle of red tape. The average project built with federal money took seven years, from application to completion, under the old HUD program, known as “Section 811.”

Meanwhile, the need for supportive housing has grown over the last decade. One element spurring the increase: a 1999 Supreme Court decision finding that unnecessary institutionalization of individuals was a violation of the Americans with Disability Act.

“A lot of states are moving forward to get people out of institutional settings and into community settings and that’s a good thing,” said Andrew Sperling, a lobbyist for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “But none of that works if they don’t have access to housing.”

Currently, there are an estimated 1.3 million people nationally with physical and mental disabilities who are in dire need of new housing. Sperling notes that these are not “high functioning” people who have lost a limb or have some other challenge. These are quadriplegics, schizophrenics, and others who need significant assistance to make it on their own.

In Connecticut, the Partnership for Strong Communities estimates there are more than 100,000 low-income disabled people in need of new housing.

“Connecticut has been a national leader in creating supportive housing, but there’s still a lot more need,” said Shelby Mertes, chief policy analyst for the Partnership. “That is huge in getting people off the streets and back on their feet… And we know that when people get out of homelessness and into supportive housing, they use other services far less.”

If the disabled don’t have access to such housing and accompanying services, he noted, their health problems can get worse and put them in the ER. Or an addiction or mental health problem can spiral, and they may end up in jail. All of which ends up costing a lot more than a month’s rent.

Right now, HUD’s Section 811 program supports the construction of about 1,000 new units of supportive housing each year, a figure Murphy calls “pathetic” given the immense need.

The new law, named after the late Frank Melville, the first chairman of the Melville Charitable Trust, which supports programs to combat homelessness, could triple that number. (The trust also provides support for The Mirror.)

The law aims to revamp the program, making it easier for developers to use and stretching the federal dollars allocated for new construction further.

For example, the law will now require HUD to give preference to developers who leverage state and private funding for supportive housing projects, which advocates say will greatly expand the impact of the federal dollars. “The program never did a good job of requiring or incentivizing matching funds,” Murphy said.

HUD will also be able to delegate management of the application process to state housing agencies, which are typically much quicker in processing construction projects.

And although the law will not inject any additional money into the Section 811 program, it will free up about $120 million a year for new capital projects by shifting a rent voucher initiative for the disabled to another similar HUD program.

Proponents say the new law should enable the program to triple the number of new units it builds each year, from 1,000 to 3,000.

“Three thousand is still a very small number, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Murphy said.

Advocates in Connecticut say they are well positioned to take advantage of the changes.

“Connecticut is among a handful of states that has done really well in creating supportive housing, so we’re in a position where we can compete for federal resources on this front,” said Mertes. “HUD knows it’ll get spent well here.”

Sperling, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agreed that Connecticut will “see much quicker updating under the new allowances” in the law. “Nonprofit developers will be able to move quickly, do more innovative things, and make the dollars stretch further” than in other states that have not been at the forefront of this issue, he said.

Said Beauregard: “Anything we can get will help… The bottom line is there’s a lot more need than there are resources. And supportive housing works better than people ending up the ER, homeless, or in jail.”