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LOCKPORT – Niagara County will study the best way to inspect housing to be rented to welfare clients.

A County Legislature committee voted unanimously Monday in favor of a resolution sponsored by the Legislature’s three Democrats, calling for a report by September on how to accomplish the goal.

A special committee – comprising three senior legislators, the county manager, county attorney and Social Services commissioner – will produce the report.

The main question to be answered is who will perform the inspections and how they will be paid for.

“We could contract with cities to use their code enforcement officers, or we could get our own, or we could get a private entity,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.

Virtuoso, who also is Niagara Falls’ chief building inspector, said Niagara Falls assigns 1,000 units to a single inspector. Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said the county has 1,800 rental units, so Virtuoso said if the county does the work directly, it would have to hire only two people.

Restaino said the state would reimburse the county for all but 25 percent of the cost of the inspections, but he questioned whether there is legal authority to have Social Services perform them.

The resolution regarding inspections was introduced after the Legislature passed a measure, which took effect June 1, requiring welfare recipients’ shelter allowances to be paid directly to their landlords.

Owners of rental property, especially in Niagara Falls, had claimed they were often going unpaid, leading to evictions.

During that debate, welfare advocates said the rental properties often are decrepit, leaving tenants with no alternative to protest other than by withholding rent.

“If we’re paying for a house or apartment for these people to live in, they should be up to code,” said Virtuoso.

He said a pre-rental inspection would help everyone.

“It’s good for the landlords. They have a record of what kind of shape it was in before tenants moved in,” Virtuoso said. “It’s good for the clients. They’re moving into a unit that’s safe for them and safe for their children.” He said that whatever it costs to inspect the units, the county will save money because it will have to pay for fewer emergency relocations of tenants, who must be housed somewhere at county expense after an eviction.

Legislator Peter E. Smolinski, R-North Tonawanda, had doubts. “Does the county open itself up to a new generation of liability? If the inspector misses something, say a stair, and then the stair collapses, could they sue us?” he asked.

Restaino answered, “I would imagine they could.”

“You can catch a lot of fraud, too, by finding people who shouldn’t be living there,” Virtuoso said. He added that landlords “have no excuse now for not fixing up their properties.”

In a membership email forwarded to The Buffalo News, the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara supported mandatory pre-rental inspections. Such inspections already are required under federal law for housing subsidized under the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com