By Joyce Miles
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — A county legislative committee gave a tepid reception to a trio of resolutions aimed at convincing the state to make welfare recipients use their monthly rent subsidies on rent and nothing else.
The resolutions, proposed last month by Niagara Falls lawmakers Dennis Virtuoso and Jason Zona, seek changes in state law so that recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families are compelled to turn over their monthly rent grants to their landlords, and risk civil or criminal penalties if they do not.
Presently welfare recipients are free to use their rent subsidies however they choose. It's taxpayer money that they're spending, however, and using rent money for anything else is akin to misappropriation of government funds, Virtuoso said previously.
His and Zona's resolution calling for a change in the state law was tabled by a vote of the legislature's Community Services committee. Also put into limbo was one asking the state for a "home rule" message so that Niagara County Social Services can have a policy of paying rent grants directly to landlords.
The resolution calling for penalties statewide for welfare recipients who misspend their rent grants died, for a lack of a second to committee member Owen Steed's motion to send it to the full legislature for a vote.
The resolutions were crafted with heavy input from the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, which argues that direct-pay requirements would help reduce rates of tenant eviction due to nonpayment of rent and, in the bigger picture, help reverse property blight and abandonment.
A dozen or so association members who attended the committee meeting left disappointed, and not just because they hadn't been invited to address the issue.
The swiftness of committee voting on the resolutions — in less than five minutes, after almost no discussion — gave some LAGN members the idea that the legislators just don't care about rental property owners.
"It has to be politics, because who in their right mind wouldn't be for this?" Niagara Falls landlord Jerry Turri said.
Of the tabling of the home-rule request especially, LAGN President Bob Pascoe said, "We're confused why they'd deny local government the right to manage itself. We're not looking to reform the whole welfare system ...
"Critics say this is all about the landlords wanting their money," Niagara Falls rental property owner Laura Rhoney said. "Yes, we want the rent money, to improve our properties, improve our city and improve the life of our tenants."
"When the rent is paid, tenants — especially children — have more stable homes, and landlords have the money to invest back into their properties," association member Emma Chapman said. "Our idea is good for tenants, good for landlords and it would save some taxpayer money."
Niagara Falls Block Club Council Treasurer Norma Higgs said she approached Niagara County Social Services in the 1990s, to inquire about modeling state welfare housing payments after the federal "Section 8" voucher program, in which the government directly pays property owners and only for property that passes inspection.
Like her effort then, LAGN's effort now "doesn't look like it's going anywhere," Higgs said, "and I'm mad about that. The whole cycle (of property abuse, neglect and abandonment) is just not fair. All we want is a clean city, and it just seems like we get turned down wherever we go."
Legislator Steed, D-Niagara Falls, proposed tabling the resolutions supporting statewide direct-pay arrangements or a home rule message for Niagara County only. He was seconded in both by legislator Cheree Copelin, R-Niagara Falls. Both lawmakers said they wanted time to further research the issue and talk with Social Services Commissioner Anthony Restaino.
Steed said feedback from his constituents indicates they "have a problem being denied the opportunity to handle their own money," Steed said. "A lot of good people shouldn't have to pay for (the actions of) a few bad people. What about bad landlords?"
Virtuoso, the veteran legislative Minority Caucus leader, left the meeting fairly steamed — "Clearly they don't care about people getting ripped off," he declared on his way out the door — and later trained his ire exclusively on Copelin, with whom he'd squabbled about the LAGN members not being invited to address the committee.
"She wants to look into it more? That's what we're supposed to do in committee, we study it; we talk to the people who have knowledge. ... I didn't even get a chance to introduce a whole bunch of people who have information about this," he said.
Copelin, the community services vice chair, suggested the resolutions could be moved out of table next month.