Tonawanda News

January 17, 2013

Stricter controls on welfare benefits urged

Staff reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Proposed resolutions by Niagara County lawmakers to try requiring welfare recipients’ housing grants be paid directly to landlords are going to a legislative committee for further discussion.

Three resolutions by the Legislature’s Democratic minority caucus were introduced Tuesday, all speaking to a perceived shortcoming in state law that permits welfare recipients to decide how to spend their monthly housing grants.

The countywide Landlords Association of Greater Niagara is advocating for a change in the law, to ensure housing grants are paid directly to property owners. The association asserts such an arrangement would help reduce rates of tenant eviction due to non-payment of rent and, in the bigger picture, help reverse property blight and abandonment. 

The issue drew about a dozen Niagara Falls residents to the Legislature meeting this week, most in support of the resolutions.

Falls lawmakers Dennis Virtuoso, Jason Zona and Owen Steed put their names to three resolutions asking the state Legislature to: change state law so that monthly housing grants are paid directly to landlords, not Temporary Aid to Needy Families recipients; or make a new law making it a crime for welfare recipients to spend their housing grants on anything other than rent; or approve a “home rule” message authorizing the Niagara County Department of Social Services to pay rent subsidies to landlords with or without welfare recipients’ consent.

The Landlords Association estimates members went through more than 1,000 eviction proceedings in 2009-2010, at a total cost of $3.8 million to the community from court costs, property repairs, lost rent and moving expenses. “A good portion” of the damages can be attributed to welfare clients, association President Bob Tascoal asserted.

The Niagara County Department of Social Services does not track local welfare clients’ eviction rates at all, let alone due to nonpayment of rent. The department is assessing the cost to move clients from one place to another, though, after contact with the Association, Commissioner Anthony Restaino said this week.

The department would not encounter any problems if the state OK’d direct payment of rent vouchers to landlords, Restaino said, but added he’s not sure a direct-pay arrangement would satisfy landlords entirely. Monthly shelter allowances for the poor are typically far less than going rental rates around the county, he said. The allowance for a single adult is $174 a month. For a family of four it’s $331 a month When rent payments are higher, clients pay the balance from their monthly welfare grant.

The county legislature’s 12-member Republican-led majority caucus introduced a resolution of their own pertaining to the spending of welfare benefits this week. This one calls on the state Assembly to approve legislation that would ban the use of welfare benefit debit cards in strip clubs, liquor stores, casinos and other similar venues. Similar legislation passed in the state Senate last year but was not put up to a vote in the Assembly.

All four resolutions were referred to the legislature’s community services committee.