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GOP leader proposes stopping welfare housing payments to landlords

LOCKPORT – The majority leader of the Niagara County Legislature is proposing to repeal a county policy of paying welfare clients’ housing allowances directly to landlords.

The county started doing that in 2013. But last month, The Buffalo News reported the story of landlord Ralph Pescrillo, who received $313,000 in rent subsidies from the county although he owed the City of Niagara Falls taxes and water bills totaling nearly $1.8 million. The city also was attempting to foreclose on 73 of his properties.

The immediate reaction was to amend the policy by making the housing payments conditional on proof of payment of taxes, as proposed by Legislator Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda. However, Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino questioned the legality of that condition.

Now, Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, is proposing a return to the pre-2013 rules by going back to paying the housing allowances to the clients “due to documented gross abuse of (the) program by scofflaw landlords,” as his resolution says.

“We just want to have some discourse and give people options. The resolution is probably going to committee,” Updegrove said.

Robert Pascoal, president of the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara, and two Democratic legislators agreed Friday that Updegrove’s resolution is a bad idea.

Pascoal recalled that the reason the county started paying landlords directly was that many welfare clients were not using the rent money to pay rent, leaving landlords without revenue. Without the direct payments, “I think it would be a major step backwards,” Pascoal said. He added that when a landlord evicts a welfare recipient for unpaid rent, the person is eligible for an emergency housing payment, which costs the county more money.

Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, called Updegrove’s proposal “childish and political. They’ve made this a political issue against the Niagara Falls delegation.”

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, commented, “They’re just putting the money back in the hands of the welfare clients, which just doesn’t make sense.”

Zona said the Democrats could support Bradt’s resolution to require proof of tax payments, if it were legal, even though it tries to score political points by referring to the direct payment policy as the “Virtuoso-Zona resolution.”

The Democrats also are reintroducing a measure that died in committee in 2013, requiring advance inspections of all rental units paid for through welfare before a client moves in. It would be similar to the inspection rules the federal government uses for Section 8 housing, which has an income eligibility guideline.

“I’m suspecting this time, there’ll be a lot more public pressure than the last time,” Zona predicted.

Pascoal said he supports pre-inspection to the federal housing quality standard. “These apartment rarely get inspected because (city) code enforcement can only come in by invitation,” he said. “An inspection will arrest the decay. Every one of those buildings represents a revenue stream for the city, the county and the school district.”