Tonawanda News

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September 13, 2013

Welfare housing inspections nixed

Tonawanda News — LOCKPORT — A special committee has recommended against Niagara County trying to require housing inspections for welfare recipients receiving tax-funded monthly housing allowances.

The committee, authorized by the county Legislature this past June, disbanded Wednesday after members learned the pursuit would violate state law.

Social Services Commissioner Tony Restaino obtained an opinion from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which advised counties cannot refuse to pay shelter allowances for reasons not spelled out in state law.

The finding, by agency executive Jeffrey Gaskill, was written for the Oneida County social services commissioner this past May. Statewide, at least four other counties have explored tying housing grants to rental housing conditions in an effort to target slumlords and problem tenants — and all have been told the same thing.

Temporary assistance recipients “can’t be denied a shelter allowance based on a local law imposing a condition of eligibility (that’s) not found in state law,” Gaskill wrote. “Eligibility for public assistance allowances is not conditioned upon residing in an apartment or accommodation having a valid certificate of occupancy or rental permit, and local districts cannot add this requirement as a condition of eligibility.”

“We support (the linking of housing grants with conditions) but we can’t do it ... without violating state and federal requirements,” special committee chairman Legislator Keith McNall, R-Lockport, said.

The exploratory committee was pitched in late spring by legislators Dennis Virtuoso and Jason Zona, both Niagara Falls Democrats. Previously the minority caucus lawmakers had won Republicans’ support for a measure requiring the Department of Social Services to pay welfare recipients’ housing allowances directly to their landlords.

Both measures were pushed hard by the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, which contends that area housing stock is degraded partly because rental property owners lose money renting to welfare recipients. Prior to the legislature’s direct-pay order, recipients could elect to receive their cash allowances personally and pass the money on to their landlords — or not; and if not, they faced no penalties or reduction in benefits going forward.

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