Niagara Gazette

April 10, 2013

Subsidy change pushed

By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Two lawmakers are proposing that the Niagara County Department of Social Services be instructed to pay all Temporary Assistance clients' rent subsidies directly to their landlords, per existing state law.

The lawmakers, Niagara Falls Democrats Jason Zona and Dennis Virtuoso, recently penned a series of resolutions calling on the state Legislature to amend law so that either welfare recipients' rent subsidies are paid directly to landlords or recipients are legally bound to use the subsidies on nothing else but rent. As an alternative, they asked for a state law authorizing Niagara County to enact a Social Services-to-landlords only rental payment policy.

They did so in response to petitioning by the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, which claims direct payment of welfare rent subsidies to landlords would reduce local tenant eviction rates, reduce Social Services spending on relocating clients to new housing and prevent misspending of tax-paid housing vouchers.

According to Virtuoso, the resolutions came about after attorneys for Niagara County DSS said state law leaves it up to welfare recipients whether they or their landlords are to get first crack at the monthly cash allowances — and the county could not impose a different payment scheme across-the-board without the state's OK.

It turns out the state already authorized local Social Services units to pay all Temporary Assistance recipients' landlords directly, back in 2003. Zona recently obtained a copy of a memo from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance advising all units of such.

According to the memo, a section of New York Codes, Rules & Regulations, pertaining to payout of benefits for Temporary Aid To Needy Families recipients, was amended to authorize local Social Services divisions to "restrict (benefits) for administrative ease without first finding mismanagement."

"Prior to the amended regulation, restricted payments to vendors were only allowed for (Family Assistance) cases when the recipient demonstrated mismanagement or requested such payment. ... Districts have long sought (the amendment) as a way of reducing arrears payments for non-payment of shelter costs and preventing homelessness, by assuring that the clients' benefits are going toward the costs of shelter, utilities and heat," the memo said.

Zona said he was informed of the regulation by the Social Services commissioner in Onondaga County, where direct-to-landlord rent payments are the norm. That county did not seek special permission from the state, Zona said he was told. Since then, he learned that direct-to-landlord rent payments are also the norm in Wayne, Clinton and Schenectady counties, and in New York City, he added.

Zona and Virtuoso will propose the Niagara County Legislature mandate a direct-to-landlord rent payment policy for all local Temporary Assistance cases, "for administrative ease of the department," effective June 1.

"It's already being done in numerous counties," Zona said. "I would assume we can pass this Tuesday night."

In response to the county legislature's earlier home rule request, state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, introduced a bill in the Senate that would authorize Niagara County to mandate a direct-to-landlord rent payment policy. Last month, he said he supported the gist of the Landlords Association's argument — that rent subsidies should be spent on housing, and nothing else — but doubted whether his legislation would clear the Senate. Complaints about welfare recipients misspending rent subsidies seemed to come only from Niagara Falls-area rental property owners, no where else in the 62nd District, he said at the time.