Niagara Gazette

January 13, 2013

Rent assistance questioned as lawmaker, landlord group seeks changes

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — State law allows qualified individuals in need to receive a shelter allowance grant that is supposed to be used to cover their monthly rent. 

Bob Pascoal, president of the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, says that while the grant program is well intentioned, in many cases in the Niagara Falls area it’s simply not working.

The reason?

Pascoal and other landlord association members contend a loophole in state law that allows shelter grant recipients to use the money for purposes other than rent is costing rental property owners big dollars while costing the renters themselves the ability to meet their monthly obligations. 

“The system has to be looked at and this is just a first step,” said Pascoal, who is working with a local county lawmaker on a plan to tighten rules governing the use of shelter grant funds. “We’re not asking that them to change the program. We’re just asking them to change the process.”

Pascoal said the “process” currently allows recipients of public assistance to have their shelter allowance grants turned over to them, as opposed to being directly delivered to their landlords each month. As a result, he said, some renters who qualify for the grants use the money on whatever they please, often causing them to fall behind on rental payments as a result. Current regulations do not mandate that the shelter allowance grants be used for rent, a situation Pascoal says doesn’t make sense and needs to be changed.

“If you get a grant and you spend that grant outside the purview of the grant, they’ll take that grant away,” said Pascoal, who owns several rental properties in the Falls with is wife. “Why is this grant different?”

Pascoal said the situation leads to problems both for the landlords and the tenants. In the landlords’ case, Pascoal said they not only lose out on monthly rental income, but also often must deal with added costs for evicting tenants that can’t afford to pay and the need to find new tenants to replace them. On the other side, Pascoal said, individuals qualifying for rental assistance who do not use the money for its intended purpose often find themselves in need of a place to live and even more help from the public assistance system. 

“We rely on the rent,” Pascoal said. “We rely on tenants to take care of the garbage, keep the place clean and get along with their neighbors. If you have these things, you have a safe neighborhood. When that rent doesn’t come, the whole scale gets tipped, especially in Niagara Falls.”  

Pascoal’s association has been working with local attorney and former state Assembly candidate Robert Restaino and current Niagara County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, on an effort to have the rules changed. 

Virtuoso has introduced three resolutions aimed at addressing gaps in the existing state regulations. He too believes shelter allowance grants should only be used for their intended purpose: Covering monthly rents. 

Virtuoso’s first resolutions calls on state lawmakers to change the shelter allowance stipulations for public assistance clients to direct pay only. In this way, he argues, both the state and the landlords would be assured that the rental assistance money is being used appropriately.

As an alternative, Virtuoso will introduce a second resolution calling on the state to require all recipients of shelter allowance funds to sign affidavits indicating that they will use rental funds  for payment of housing costs only. The resolution calls for those who fail to comply to face civil and criminal penalties. 

A third resolution to be introduced by Virtuoso asks the state to grant Niagara County home-rule status on the matter, thus allowing the county itself to decide how best to allocate shelter allowance dollars. 

“Here they are getting a grant and when they misuse it nobody does anything about it,” Virtuoso said of the current system. “That’s county money in there. Twenty-five percent of that money is county tax dollars so why shouldn’t we have a right to say how it is spent?”

Virtuoso is planning to introduce the resolutions for consideration by his colleagues during a legislature meeting scheduled for Tuesday in Lockport. 

Mug of Virtuoso, Dennis Dennis Virtuoso Pushing resolution