LOCKPORT – Niagara County legislators learned this week that counties aren’t allowed to require advance building inspections of apartments to be rented to welfare recipients.

The county had created a special committee to work on the issue, which met for the first time Wednesday, only to be greeted by word from county Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino that what it sought to accomplish is illegal in New York.

Earlier this year, the County Legislature voted to allow direct payments of welfare clients’ shelter allowances to landlords, who have complained about being stiffed for their rent by tenants on public assistance. That measure took effect June 1.

During the debate, advocates for the poor told the Legislature that withholding rent is often the only way welfare clients can protest substandard housing.

Legislature Democrats then introduced a resolution to study the best way to accomplish advance code inspections of space to be rented to welfare recipients.

Restaino said that his department lacks legal authority to perform inspections or require any other level of government to do so.

Restaino gave the committee a May 2 letter from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to the Oneida County social services commissioner, who sought to require clients to have their dwellings inspected when they apply for welfare, move, or seek recertification for benefits.

“Eligibility for public assistance is not conditioned upon residing in an apartment or accommodate having a valid certificate of occupancy,” wrote Jeffrey Gaskell, director of temporary assistance.

Reacting to that news, Robert Pascoal, president of the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara, said, “I think it’s a bad thing for ethical landlords. People you call slumlords, who view property as disposable, it’s good news for them.”

Restaino said the only exception occurs if a landlord, client and Social Services make, in advance, a “landlord security agreement” that allows an advance code inspection cataloging the dwelling’s condition. If damage not listed in the inspection is found after the client moves out, the county can pay the landlord up to one month’s rent and garnish the benefits of the tenant to reimburse itself.

“We can’t mandate that everybody has a landlord security agreement,” Restaino said.

Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, who is also Niagara Falls’ chief building inspector, said there are only about 100 welfare clients who are renting and are covered by such agreements.

“They should really do this, but apparently, a lot of them, through a lack of communication or a lack of will, don’t do it,” Virtuoso said.

He said he expects the Legislature to send a resolution to Albany, urging a change in the law.