Tonawanda News

September 13, 2013

Welfare housing inspections nixed

By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News

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.

County lawmakers and county landlords got behind the exploratory committee after critics of the direct-pay order pointed out it strips welfare recipients of their power to withhold rent for substandard housing. Requiring rental units to pass inspection before Social Services starts cutting housing checks would protect both the recipients and taxpayers, supporters agreed.

It’s not to be, unless the state changes its laws, committee members said. Counties and Social Services units don’t have authority or the ability to enforce building codes; that regulatory work is assigned to cities and towns only, County Manager Jeffrey Glatz said.

Also, Temporary Assistance is a state program, and while counties are now paying the lion’s share of the tab, the only role they’re allowed in the award of assistance is to determine residents’ eligibility for it.

Temporary Assistance also is known as “Safety Net” assistance. It’s New York state’s response to the 5-year limit imposed by the federal government on recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Safety Net assistance can go indefinitely to families that exhausted their TANF benefits — and while the state used to split the cost 50/50 with its counties, within the past couple of years it changed the cost-sharing formula and counties are now saddled with 79 percent. Niagara County’s Safety Net bill will be about $8 million this year, according to Legislator Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport.

Updegrove proposed, and the rest of the committee agreed to recommend, the county Legislature call on the state Legislature to reform or scrap the Safety Net program. He already doubts any proposal to alter the Safety Net would get by the state Assembly, however.

“Assembly Democrats (who control the house) didn’t change the law to make sex offender residency requirements at least as stringent as ours, so good luck with that,” he said.