Press-Republican

April 15, 2014

Social Services housing detective suggested

By LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — The proliferation of unsafe rental properties occupied by Essex County Department of Social Services clients has raised calls for a solution from county lawmakers.

Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) told the County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee on Monday that his town just evicted a family with small children who were living in squalor.

“The conditions were just horrendous,” he said. “These are bad situations. We have to get a handle on this.”

Scozzafava had previously asked for Department of Social Services inspections of housing its clients are renting but was told by County Department of Social Services Commissioner John O’Neill that, due to a prohibition in state law, that can’t be done.

He said he spoke with Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting and learned that Warren County handles those situations differently.

“Warren County has someone on staff who goes out there and does visits, which we have a legal right to do if they’re receiving social assistance,” Scozzafava said.

‘BAD SITUATION’

“Warren County has their own detective assigned to Social Services,” Cutting told the committee. “He takes the applications for Social Services benefits, and the deputy goes out and verifies those applications.”

The deputy prevented $1 million in false Social Services claims the first year of the program, he said.

The sheriff said if he dedicates a deputy to Social Services application inquiries, “it leaves a gap in my structure.”

Scozzafava said he’d support creating another position to do the investigations and property inspections.

“I tell you something bad is going to happen,” he said.

Scozzafava said his town codes officer goes out to inspect rental properties when he knows there’s a problem.

“The problem once they’re in there, it’s harder (to inspect the housing),” he said. “It’s just a bad situation. For the life of me, I don’t understand why (Social Services) caseworkers can’t go out and make visits, but they can’t.”

‘NO AUTHORITY’

Supervisor William Grinnell (R-Ticonderoga) said he has a similar situation at a house in Ticonderoga.

“If caseworkers can’t go out, that’s a policy issue,” he said. “We should update our policies.”

O’Neill said after the meeting that it’s a state law that bars the housing inspections.

“As was explained last year, and many times in the past when this has been brought up, state law simply does not give Social Services departments the authority to inspect housing as a condition of eligibility, and counties cannot unilaterally impose policies that conflict with state law. 

“Rather than repeatedly bringing this up as a failing of county departments, the authority for building-code enforcement continues to be under the sole authority of the towns, period.

“The only alternative is to change New York State Social Services Law.”

STATE SUPERSEDES LOCAL

O’Neill pointed to Niagara County, which found it could not require housing inspections for welfare recipients receiving monthly housing allowances.

The State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has issued an opinion that assistance recipients “can’t be denied a shelter allowance based on a local law imposing a condition of eligibility (that’s) not found in state law. Eligibility for public assistance allowances is not conditioned upon residing in an apartment or accommodation having a valid certificate of occupancy or rental permit, and local districts cannot add this requirement as a condition of eligibility.”

‘ALL EARS’

Although agencies can’t require inspections, State Social Services Law 143 authorizes them to withhold housing assistance if the home has a violation of law that is “dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to life or health.”

If the local codes officer determines the residence is unsafe, the county can withhold a shelter allowance or rehouse the recipient, the law states.

That’s the avenue they want to explore with the Sheriff’s Department, Scozzafava said.

It still couldn’t be done, O’Neill said, “if it’s intended as a condition of eligibility, or if it in any way violates an applicant’s right to confidentiality. 

“But if Warren County has a system that protects people from slumlords, and is approved by the state, I’m all ears.”

Scozzafava said he intends to bring the idea up for discussion at future meetings.

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com