Niagara Gazette

February 10, 2013

EDITORIAL: Rent funds are for landlords

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — There’s nothing wrong with helping those in need.

In the state of New York, and especially in an economically challenged community like the city of Niagara Falls, public assistance programs are at times necessary to help individuals and families through the rough patches in life. 

That being said, there should be standards by which these programs are applied and, concurrently, the people who are eligible for them should be expected to use whatever assistance they receive in appropriate ways.

Members of the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara believe the same thing, which is why they are now working with a pair of Democratic lawmakers from Niagara Falls in an effort to change the rules governing the use of one specific form of public assistance — shelter allowance grants.

Qualified individuals are eligible to have their monthly rent paid under the shelter allowance grant program, which relies on 50 percent support from the federal government with the cost of the remaining half split between the state and local government, in this case Niagara County’s Department of Social Services. 

Under current state law, eligible New Yorkers are not obligated to use their monthly shelter allowance as intended — to pay their rent. As a result, it is possible for them to spend their monthly rental subsidy elsewhere. 

Association members are now pushing — with the help of Niagara County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso and his colleague Jason Zona — for changes in the program’s guidelines so rental assistance cash is used as intended — on monthly rent only. 

At the urging of landlord association members, Virtuoso and Zona have introduced three resolutions, all aimed at changing the system guidelines. 

One resolution asks the state to pay shelter allowance directly to landlords. A second asks lawmakers in Albany to establish civil or criminal penalties for those who do not use shelter allowance as intended. Failing those, the final resolution is a home rule request asking the state to grant Niagara County permission to use the funds to pay landlords directly.

Members of the county’s Community Services Committee are expected to consider the proposals during a meeting Monday evening. 

We encourage them to consider the resolutions carefully and approve whatever measure or measures necessary to address what appears to be a questionable and, indeed costly, loophole. Also, we call upon state lawmakers representing Niagara County to join the effort to make sure any proposed changes in state law are considered in Albany. We also strongly recommend that any adjustments involve language aimed at protecting the rights of tenants, some of whom have been forced to withhold rent in order to compel rental property owners to make necessary infrastructure repairs and improvements. 

While we appreciate the need for individuals who may be struggling financially to enjoy the type of pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with managing one’s own money, we can’t help but agree with members of the landlord association who note that shelter allowance assistance isn’t being made available to the recipient’s to use as they please. 

It’s rent money and should be used to pay the rent each month. 

When it isn’t, landlords lose out on monthly revenue they ill afford in the Falls, tenants often find themselves being evicted at a cost to those same landlords and, yes, the county is obligated to find new places for those qualifying for rental assistance to live, adding to the overall cost for the community as a whole.