BY LOHR McKINSTRY
ELIZABETHTOWN — The Essex County Department of Social Services head says state law has their hands tied when it comes to making sure their clients don’t move into substandard housing.
Commissioner John O’Neill told the County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee on Monday that they can’t tell anyone, including municipalities, who is receiving housing allowances.
Even though Social Services is paying the rent, they can’t check to find out if a house or apartment has been inspected and is safe and sanitary, O’Neill said, because that might reveal a client’s identity.
Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said his town has a local law requiring an inspection by the town codes officer and issuance of a certificate of occupancy before anyone can move into rental housing.
He wanted O’Neill to have his department contact towns and villages in the county that have such laws and verify certificates of occupancy have been issued.
“It’s not that much of a burden on Social Services,” Scozzafava said. “If you’re renting a unit, call that town and say, ‘Do you have a certificate of occupancy for that apartment.’ It’s for the safety of the people who are living there. It’s something we need to be doing.”
But O’Neill said state law doesn’t allow them to do that.
“Whenever this is brought up, I’m in the position of saying, ‘We can’t do that.’ I’m sorry.
“(Due to) the shelter allowance the state pays, unfortunately, the only places people can afford are in pretty bad condition,” he said. “We can’t call; we’ve been advised by attorneys (that) it breaches confidentiality. It’s a backhanded way, someone who wants to move into a place, of identifying them.”
O’Neill said a local law requiring a certificate of occupancy “does not supersede a state law. And the state law has no provision for a certificate of occupancy.”
Scozzafava said Moriah’s law references the state building and fire codes.
“Your attorneys are wrong. We are all required to enforce the State Fire Code.”
Scozzafava said some absentee landlords who own apartment buildings in his town have allowed them to deteriorate.
“Some of them, we’ve had to close down and condemn, as you’re aware of. God forbid there’s ever a tragedy that occurs in one of these places because they don’t meet codes. (Some have) faulty heating systems, faulty electrical — it’s a problem in my community.”
Scozzafava said the Social Services attorney should research the issue further.
‘A STATE ISSUE’
“The only authority Social Services has is if the landlord wants a security deposit,” O’Neill continued. “Then we can send someone in to do an aesthetic inspection.”
Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey (D-Minerva) said they should be provided with a copy of the law O’Neill was referencing, and he said he’d get supervisors a copy.
“This codes issue is really a state issue, since it’s state codes,” Corey said. “If a house burns to the ground and someone is killed, is there any liability for us because we (Social Services) pay the rent?”
“I haven’t heard of it anywhere else,” O’Neill answered. “It hasn’t been a problem for us. We don’t have the authority to do a code and safety inspection.”
He said he believes they’re shielded from legal liability if they are following the law governing housing for clients.
Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said he’d ask County Attorney Daniel Manning III to research the issue and provide them with his opinion.
Social Services can act on housing complaints from clients, but Supervisor Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield) said tenants are often afraid to complain about problems because they’re afraid they’ll be evicted.
Scozzafava said he was frustrated by the situation.
“I know John doesn’t have the manpower (to do inspections),” he said. “I just want him to notify the town they’re renting such and such a place. We’ll take it from there.
“We’ll get a hold of the landlord and tell them they’re required to have an inspection.”
Email Lohr McKinstry:firstname.lastname@example.org