Niagara Gazette

January 15, 2013

ousing grant measure sent to county committee Tuesday night

By Joyce Miles and Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — County Democratic lawmakers efforts to change state law to compel welfare recipients to give their rent subsidies to landlords was sent to committee Tueday night.

Three resolutions were put to the Legislature called on New York state to: change state law so that Social Services departments pay welfare recipients’ monthly housing grants directly to rental property owners; make it a crime statewide for welfare recipients to not turn over their housing grants to landlords; or give Niagara County Social Services only the authority to directly pay rental property owners on behalf of all Temporary Aid to Needy Families recipients. They were all sent to committee.

More than a dozen people came to the meeting to speak or support those speaking to the legislature about the proposals, which are backed by the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara.

Association members argued Social Services should send welfare clients' rent subsidies directly to landlords for the good of whole communities. When landlords are shorted on rent payments, they can't invest in property upkeep, which leads to neighborhood deterioration, residential flight, a decline in the overall tax base and, consequently, cities raising their property tax rates, supporters say.

The legislature's minority caucus, Niagara Falls Democrats Dennis Virtuoso, Jason Zona and Owen Steed, co-sponsored three resolutions calling on the state to change existing law, or make new law, to compel the use of welfare recipients' monthly housing subsidies on housing only.

The resolutions seek: a change in state law requiring rent subsidies be paid directly to landlords, not Temporary Aid to Needy Families recipients; or new law making it a crime for welfare recipients to spend their housing grants on anything other than rent; or a "home rule" message from the state Legislature allowing the Department of Social Services to turn over rent grants to Niagara County rental property owners.

Elizabeth White, an attorney who works with TANF recipients in Niagara Falls, said withholding rent is the only way some of her clients can force landowners to address poor housing conditions. She's opposed to any change in law or regulations that would strip welfare recipients of the ability to "advocate for themselves," she said.

To the oft-mentioned fact that the Department of Social Services can withhold rent payments for poor housing, White added, she hasn't seen that happen.

Another proposed resolution, by several Republican county legislators, calls on the state Assembly to pass a law banning the use of welfare benefit debit cards in strip clubs, liquor stores, casinos and other similar venues.

The Falls' representatatives' resolutions relating to welfare rent subsidies are in a similar vein, and equally sensible, community activist Ken Hamilton observed."These are not minority Democratic issues, they're near and dear to Libertarians, Conservatives ... people who pay taxes," he said.

The Landlords Association of Greater Niagara 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, moving expenses, property repairs and lost rent while units were tied up in eviction. "A good portion" of the damages can be attributed to welfare clients, Association President Bob Pascoal asserted.

Seth Piccirillo, the director of the city's Department of Community Development, recently sat down with Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, and Pascoal to discuss the issue and what it is doing to the community.

Piccirillo said that when a tenant on public assistance, or any city resident, is evicted it destroys value for the landlord, the tenant and the entire community.

A home where a tenant is evicted has $4,000 in property damage after the that tenant moves out on average, according to a fact sheet from community development.

"Now that landlord is less likely to fix that home to market-rate standards, because he's been burned before," Piccirillo said. "That devalues that property and starts to drag down the rest of the street."

As a block begins to lose residents and its sense of community it becomes a drain on city resources, Piccirillo said.

"Now you have property values that are going down," Piccirillo said. "Now you have blight. Now you have more vacant buildings. And then you have a street which requires demolition or more police services. You've lost that block."

Piccirillo said that landlords who have to deal with evictions are sometimes unfairly labeled as "slumlords".

"These landlords are taxpayers," Piccirillo said. "Ideally they would want to do more market-rate, easy to manage properties and that's what we want too."

Piccirillo said that the landlord association, block clubs and government entities need to continue communicating on issues to ensure the well being of the community.

"The current system makes it harder for the actual individual blocks to succeed or to get people closer to home ownership," Piccirillo said. "We want people to graduate from public assistance to homeownership."