By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette — State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, has authored a bill that would authorize the Niagara County Legislature to order local public assistance recipients' housing grants be paid directly to landlords.
Bill S.3979, submitted to the Senate and referred to its local government committee on March 4, is one of three measures suggested by the county legislature and the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara to ensure welfare recipients' rent subsidies are spent on housing and nothing else.
The proposed state law would empower the county legislature to make a local law authorizing Niagara County Social Services to give welfare clients' monthly shelter allowances to rental property owners or their agents.
State law allows temporary assistance recipients to decide whether they want rent subsidies paid directly to landlords or want the money in their hands to be able to pay rent themselves.
But, as landlord association members have noted, state law doesn't make it a crime or a civil violation for grant recipients to spend their housing subsidies on things other than housing.
The association claims misuse of housing grants is pervasive and ends up costing local taxpayers millions of dollars a year. When welfare recipients are evicted for non-payment of rent, Social Services not only does not try to recover housing subsidies, it underwrites the client's move to new quarters, LAGN President Bob Pascoal observed. Meanwhile, landlords eat high costs with every eviction, in lost rent and court fees, and that money isn't available to reinvest in property.
The bigger-picture consequences are property blight, abandonment and devaluation, and chronic instability for welfare-dependent families, the association says.
Maziarz said he's "in general agreement" with the association's stance — that rent subsidies should be used for rent only — and has no problem sponsoring a home rule message for Niagara County, so that it can do things differently than the rest of the state.
He's not overly confident that the measure would pass in the state Senate, let alone the Assembly, however.
On the request of Niagara County legislator Cheree J. Copelin, R-Niagara Falls, Maziarz's legal staff researched state law to determine whether landlords have any recourse now when it comes to welfare clients not turning over their rent subsidies.
It turns out they do. Regulations by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance say stiffed landlords can request a finding by Social Services that a temporary assistance client is unable to handle money responsibly. In the event that finding is made, Social Services is able to bypass the client and give his rent subsidy to the landlord every month.
Maziarz said he'd fully expect other senators to ask why Niagara County needs different rules than the rest of the state, or why it doesn't employ the unable-client finding system that's already in place.
Further, he said, he's asked around about demand for the law change that LAGN advocates and finds it seems to be limited to property owners in Niagara Falls.
Never once when Maziarz represented a portion of Rochester did he field a similar concern, he said; the mayors of North Tonawanda and Lockport have told him it's not an issue they're hearing now, even after ample news reporting of LAGN's lobby effort. He said he even asked the mayor of Yonkers, N.Y., a city with four times the population of Niagara Falls, whether it's an issue there.
"His answer to me was, 'if it is, nobody's told me so.'"
Nonetheless, Maziarz said, "if it's a problem in Niagara Falls, I want to help get it solved." He plans on asking state Assembly member Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, to sponsor companion legislation in the Democratic-led Assembly, he added.
Social Services Commissioner Anthony Restaino said the unable-client finding system is employed, but not always to requesting landlords' satisfaction.
Landlords may ask for a finding after a tenant/welfare client has not paid rent for two months. Social Services staff examine the circumstances around non-payment and try to get to the bottom of why the client didn't pay rent. If staff find that the client had an "extraordinary circumstance" — a financial emergency, such as an unexpected bill, or deficient living quarters that the rental property owner would not address, for example — then they would not deem the client unable to handle money responsibly, according to Restaino.
Niagara County Social Services works with landlords on tenancy issues however it lawfully can, Restaino said. His agency is one of the few in New York state that requires clients to give their landlords 15 days advance notice of intent to vacate rented quarters. That policy helps landlords get apartments rented out more quickly, without a month's loss of revenue, and it's one product of the meetings that Restaino had with landlords every so often over the past 13 years, he said.
The unable-client regulation doesn't really help landlords, Pascoal said. LAGN members didn't even know about it until a few weeks ago, when Copelin, the county legislator, told them. In any case, he added, "it puts an onerous burden on the landlord. You have to make the request, but it's two months minimum before you get action, and it's not guaranteed anyway."
Pascoal said the association's direct-pay push isn't just about landlords wanting rental income. The larger issue is government's fostering of dependency and double standards of acceptable conduct, he said. How can it be that Social Services gets to decide whether a client was "justified" in blowing off their rent obligation? he said. A renter who's not receiving any government help has to make hard choices and live with them.
"This is so much more than landlords receiving money. It's that the values, the fabric of society has fallen apart," Pascoal said. "Welfare programs were designed to be temporary ... but look what's happened. Beds for the homeless morphed into cradle-to-grave assistance, for generations of families, it's gone out of control. ... It's time to re-look at this whole thing."