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Niagara County may make welfare payments directly to landlords

LOCKPORT – A review of state welfare regulations has uncovered a provision that allows counties to pay clients’ shelter allowances directly to landlords, and Niagara County may opt into that soon.

County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso and his colleague Jason A. Zona, both D-Niagara Falls, said Tuesday they will introduce a resolution at next Tuesday’s Legislature meeting authorizing the county to begin making such payments June 1.

They will do so with the blessing of county Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino. “If this is the direction he wants to go in, we’ll go ahead with it,” he said, adding that the state allows such direct payments “for the administrative ease of the department.”

“[Landlords] just want this thing moved. They think it’s a piece of legislation that benefits everyone,” Zona said.

“I’m all for it, as long as there’s no penalties to the county,” said Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield.

A group of Niagara Falls landlords, angry because welfare clients aren’t required to use their shelter allowances to pay rent, had lobbied the Legislature for reform earlier this year. They said clients were frequently stiffing them on rent, leading to evictions.

The Legislature passed resolutions urging the State Legislature to act on the matter, but it turns out no such reform is needed.

Virtuoso said Onondaga, Wayne, Schenectady and Clinton counties – as well as New York City – have opted for the direct payment system, allowed since 2003 by a provision in state social services regulations that no one in Niagara County seems to have noticed until recently.

Before this discovery, the county had believed that the only way landlords could receive the shelter allowance directly was by written request after a client hadn’t spent the allowance on rent for two consecutive months.

“We were talking about how hard it is to prove, and they [clients] can appeal it,” Virtuoso said.

But the regulations say shelter payments can be made directly to landlords on behalf of clients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. That’s the welfare program with a five-year participation limit.

Restaino said New York’s Safety Net program, which provides welfare after the five-year federal limit expires, already required direct payments to landlords.

He said one concern is that clients would have to be informed that the shelter allowance they will no longer see may not actually cover all their rent. “The shelter allowance for a single person is $174 a month. If the rent is $300 a month, they have to come up with $126,” he said. “We have to make sure they’re aware of it.”

Virtuoso said the change may save the county money, because it will presumably mean the county will have to pay to put up fewer evicted welfare clients in motels while they seek new apartments.