July 9, 2013

Social Services barred from apartment inspections

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.”

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