NIAGARA FALLS – Emma Chapman owns dozens of rental properties in Niagara Falls, and she says she wouldn’t rent to welfare recipients if she could get away with it.
She says 35 percent to 40 percent of her welfare tenants stiff her on the rent, even though Social Services earmarks a portion of the monthly grant for shelter.
“Quite often, if a welfare recipient gets sanctioned, they get everything they got before,” Chapman said last week. “The shelter allowance does not need to be spent on shelter. They can spend it on anything. Social Services will say to you, ‘Your boss doesn’t tell you how to spend your paycheck.’ The landlord gets stuck without getting the rent. It’s basically a misappropriation of government funds.”
County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso said he understands her situation. That is why he and the Legislature’s other two Democrats, Owen T. Steed and Jason A. Zona, are sponsoring three resolutions at Tuesday’s meeting, urging the state to make changes.
“The landlord’s got to pay to evict the people,” Virtuoso said. “They lose all the rent they could have invested in properties.”
Bob Tascoal, president of the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara, also complained about the situation.
“Landlords in Niagara Falls feel pretty beaten down,” said he said. “This is an issue that goes beyond rent. It’s an issue that helps deteriorate neighborhoods.”
Chapman explained how that happens.
“If you lose the rent, you don’t have the revenue to keep up your properties,” Chapman said. “If I didn’t rent to welfare recipients, then I would have [such] a vacancy rate that I wouldn’t be able to pay my taxes. … Welfare gives [evicted clients] moving expenses, extra food stamps for being displaced.”
And they receive another shelter allowance and find another place, County Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said.
“What would be the option?” he said. “The option would be, the person’s out on the street, and we’re mandated to find that person a place.”
Shelter allowances range from $174 a month for a single person and increase based on family size. A family of two adults and two children receives $209 a month for rent.
But a New York State welfare recipient is not mandated to spend the shelter allowance on shelter. After the first month, when the money is given to the landlord in voucher form, recipients are given the money themselves.
“My understanding of what’s behind it is, they’re given this amount and in order to develop some sense of responsibility, they should pay their bills themselves,” Restaino said.
Virtuoso explained that the first of his resolutions asks the state to pay the shelter allowance directly to landlords. The second asks Albany to establish civil or criminal penalties against welfare recipients who don’t use the shelter allowance for rent. And failing that, the third resolution is a home rule request asking the state to let Niagara County pay the landlord directly.
“The Landlords Association approached me about four months ago. We tried to resolve it through Social Services, but their hands are tied because of state law,” Virtuoso said.
Legislator W. Keith McNall, the new chairman of the Legislature’s Community Services Committee, reacted positively to the Democratic resolutions.
“If there’s money from Social Services that’s designated to pay rent, it should be used to pay rent,” said McNall, R-Lockport, who expects the resolutions to be referred to his committee. “Landlords should be paid for the use of their property.”