06/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrating Fair and Open Access to Housing

Each April, we observe Fair Housing Month and reaffirm the ideals it represents.

In April 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.

Since then, the protections against discrimination and unfair housing practices have expanded beyond what was originally envisioned. In 1988, amendments to the Fair Housing Act expanded the protected classes to include people with disabilities. In 1990, Congress approved the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. And in a subsequent ruling known as Olmstead v. L.C., the United States Supreme Court decided that mental illness is a form of disability under the ADA and that institutional isolation of a person with a disability is a form of discrimination. The court's opinion had a direct impact on many homeless persons, many of whom are diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses and sometimes spend extended periods of time in institutions. The court recognized that they too have a right to live in homes located in their communities.

The creation of supportive housing is a viable strategy for upholding both the spirit and the letter of the law within the Fair Housing Act, the ADA and Olmstead ruling. Supportive housing provides safe and affordable housing linked to voluntary, supportive services in the community. It allows tenants to become self-sufficient, contributing members of their communities, rather than an unknown person in an institution. Supportive housing promotes individuals' rights to independence, integration, equality of opportunity and housing choice. For these reasons, not only states, but many in the civil rights community, now identify supportive housing as a reliable means of meeting ADA and Olmstead requirements.

States are taking notice. Just recently, a federal court in New York granted qualified adult home residents an opportunity to receive mental health and social services in their own apartments and homes. The court's order implements its prior finding that virtually all adult home residents are qualified to live in supportive housing. It also requires the development of sufficient housing and associated services to ensure that people with mental illnesses can live in the most integrated settings. We at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) applaud the court's order, which will help stop the unnecessary warehousing of people with mental illnesses in New York.

In Illinois, we are delighted that the state has entered into an historic agreement where mentally ill residents who are able will be given the opportunity to move out of large nursing homes, known as Institutions for Mental Diseases (IMDs), and into community-based settings, such as supportive housing. CSH has worked for several years with the Illinois Division of Mental Health to design a supportive housing model and production system for people inappropriately living in long-term care settings. Our work helps to ensure the state's Olmstead compliance, while addressing the underlying housing needs of state residents with psychiatric issues and other disabling conditions.

We are fortunate to live in a time when our laws recognize the rights of people with disabilities to live in their own communities. We are even more fortunate to have the innovation of permanent supportive housing which enables us to effectively uphold these rights.