Niagara Gazette

April 17, 2013

Housing aid direct-pay to landlords deal ordered

By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Direct payment of Temporary Assistance recipients' housing subsidies to their landlords will be the rule around Niagara County come June, after the Legislature OK'd a resolution directing the Department of Social Services to make it so Tuesday.

The resolution by Democratic lawmakers Dennis Virtuoso and Jason Zona passed with only one dissenting vote, by fellow Niagara Falls legislator Owen Steed.

The resolution directs the county Social Services department to make direct payments of all Temporary Aid to Needy Families recipients' shelter allowances to landlords, "for administrative ease of the department," effective June 1 or with next client contacts after June.

A directive from the legislature wasn't necessary, since a 10-year-old state regulation already empowered individual Social Services units to arrange blanket direct payments to landlords if that's easier for the units, but Virtuoso said the directive takes heat off of DSS Commissioner Anthony Restaino.

The direct-pay arrangement was pushed hard by the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, which argues the lack of penalties for welfare recipients who misspend their housing grants contributes to deteriorated housing stock and unstable homes for children — and it is opposed by tenants' rights advocates who believe withholding rent money is the only power tenants have over neglectful landlords.

The apparent intent of state law allowing welfare recipients to decide who should handle their rent grants first, them or their landlords, is to encourage recipients' sense of dignity and financial competence. In comments to county lawmakers before the vote, Niagara Falls rental property owner Robert Cunningham s the direct-pay directive is "bigotry (aimed at people who've been deemed) too poor and too ignorant to pay their rent. ... It's overkill and greatly disrespectful."

On the pro side, Lockport rental property owners Bill Rutland and Jim Sacco said they've both experienced difficulties collecting past-due rent from tenants who receive Temporary Assistance.

Rutland suggested the direct-pay arrangement would make landlords less "reluctant" to let space to welfare recipients, while Sacco pointedly noted that rent collection woes are not unique to Niagara Falls rental property owners, as local Republican leaders including state Sen. George Maziarz have suggested.

"It's a problem here in Lockport too, as well as other places," Sacco asserted.

Lawmakers in the Republican-led majority caucus all voted for the Virtuoso-Zona resolution with one amendment. Majority Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, asked for language to be inserted directing Social Services to not set up direct-pay arrangements with rental property owners who are also elected Niagara County officials.

Only one legislator, Virtuoso, is known to be a rental property owner.

Updegrove said the proviso was not aimed at Virtuoso personally, it's intended to avoid any appearance of legislation benefiting lawmakers.

Virtuoso said he had no objections, as he doesn't rent property to Temporary Assistance recipients anyway.