New York City families who no longer receive federal welfare benefits should still get state aid to help pay their rent when they’re threatened with eviction, a state Supreme Court judge ruled recently.

That ruling, welfare law experts say, sets a precedent for the thousands of families who have lost their federal benefits after five years on the welfare rolls, and who now are enrolled in the New York State program that continues paying welfare benefits, called Safety Net Assistance.

Judge Karla Moskowitz’ February 27 decision to grant emergency housing money to two Bronx mothers on Safety Net facing eviction is the most recent decision in the long-running saga of Jiggetts v. Dowling, a lawsuit originally filed in 1987. In 1990, the court found that the portion of the welfare grant that is supposed to help a poor family pay rent, currently $286 for a family of three, was inadequate. The court then ordered the state to pay an extra rent supplement to families on welfare who were threatened with eviction. Currently, 14,462 city families in the five boroughs receive Jiggetts payments, up to $700 a month for a family of four.

However, in 2001, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance decided that families who enter the Safety Net program would no longer be eligible for Jiggetts. Instead, OTDA created a new program, called Temporary Shelter Supplements, to pay Jiggetts-like benefits.

Legal Aid attorneys and welfare advocates immediately protested that TSS was a flawed program that fell far short of Jiggetts. For example, many families facing eviction owe thousands of dollars which they try to pay not just with state money, but with grants from relatives or charities, but TSS rules forbid families from seeking contributions from outside sources. Also, TSS will only pay back rent once in a recipient’s lifetime, whereas Jiggetts has no such restrictions.

Judge Moskowitz agreed that TSS was inadequate, ordering the state to pay Jiggetts relief to the two plaintiffs, each a woman with young children who has been living in her Bronx apartments for nearly a decade. When each ran into problems paying her rent, OTDA refused to help, because both had also sought outside help for their back rent.

That decision, the judge ruled, would cause the two women “irreparable harm in the truest sense-they and their young children will face eviction from their homes and likely homelessness.”

The Legal Aid lawyers who represented the two women are confident that the decision applies to all of the families who have been-or soon will be when they hit their five-year time limits-receiving Safety Net benefits. “TSS people in effect have to be treated the same as Jiggetts recipients,” said Legal Aid supervising attorney Les Helfman.

The state will likely appeal the decision, according to an OTDA spokesperson. Legal Aid says it will keep fighting. “We will vigorously defend this great decision, and I’m sure we will be vindicated,” says Legal Aid attorney Susan Bahn. “Eventually this will affect all families” on welfare.