By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — County Democratic lawmakers are calling for changes in state law to compel welfare recipients to give their rent subsidies to landlords.
Three resolutions are being put to the Legislature, all calling on New York State to: change state law so that Social Services departments pay welfare recipients’ monthly housing grants directly to rental property owners; make it a crime statewide for welfare recipients to not turn over their housing grants to landlords; or give Niagara County Social Services only the authority to directly pay rental property owners on behalf of all Temporary Aid to Needy Families recipients.
The resolutions are crafted with input from the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, an organization with members across Niagara County that says welfare clients’ misuse of housing grants is pervasive and ends up costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
LAGN estimates that in 2009-2010, members commenced more than 1,000 evictions due to tenants’ non-payment of rent. Considering lost rent, the court costs associated with the eviction process and expenses incurred by Social Services to move clients to new housing, the “damages” to the community were about $3.8 million. “A good portion” is attributed to welfare recipients who didn’t use their housing grants to pay rent, LAGN President Bob Pascoal said.
Presently, the way state law is written, it’s up to welfare recipients to decide where Social Services will direct their housing grants, to their landlord or them. When recipients take them money themselves, it’s not a crime if they don’t use it to pay rent.
That needs to change, county lawmaker Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said.
“If the county used a grant for something other than its given purpose, (the grantor) would come after us for fraud. Rent subsidies are grants ... . Using them for something other than paying rent is misappropriation of government funds,” he said.
Pascoal and LAGN member Lou Rizzo, a real estate agent, say a change in the law would help stabilize housing stock and property values across the county.
In Niagara Falls, which is ranked the third-poorest city in the United States, about 20 percent of residential properties are abandoned. Rizzo asserted many of those properties were rendered worthless by occupants who blew off rent and/or damaged units without consequences other than eviction, which Social Services automatically underwrites for welfare recipients.
“It’s not that (the abandoned houses) weren’t producing, they were destroyed,” he said.
“When landlords suffer loss after loss after loss, they can’t keep investing in property. It becomes unviable,” Pascoal said.
Rizzo links misuse of housing grants with high crime and drug-use rates and, ultimately, broken homes for children. The community foots the bill through high taxes, on ever-more depressed property values, and the children — who were supposed to be lifted up by welfare — suffer the consequences.
“It’s time taxpayers stand up and scrutinize how our money’s really being spent,”Rizzo said. “We’re trying to use a common-sense approach to turning the area around. One thing we can do is hold the culprits accountable.”
Pascoal suggested eviction rates of welfare recipients would decrease significantly if Social Services paid landlords directly. That in turn would help stabilize children’s lives, as they wouldn’t be uprooted from home and school so often, he said.
Direct payment of rent to rental property owners would not strip welfare recipients’ leverage over errant landlords, according to Virtuoso. Tenants can always report property deficiencies to their local municipal building/code inspection office, and welfare recipients can report deficiencies to Social Services and arrange withholding of rent until they’re fixed, he said.
The county resolutions, co-sponsored by Virtuoso and fellow Niagara Falls-based legislators Jason Zona and Owen Steed, may be taken up by the full Legislature at its Tuesday business meeting.