No Single-Family Homes Fixed With Build It Back Funds Since Sandy

By Katie Honan on February 24, 2014 6:59am 

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 The Build It Back program has spent a small portion of its multi-million dollar budget.
No Single-Family Homes Fixed With Build It Back Funds Since Sandy
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NEW YORK CITY — Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy decimated large swaths of the city's waterfront, not a single one-family home has been rebuilt or repaired with the nearly $700 million earmarked for recovery.

Build It Back, created to help storm victims who were displaced, had nearly 20,000 single-family home applicants for relief funds. Just 171 of those have been awarded money out of the $306 million pot as of Feb. 20.

None of these projects has started construction, though an official said, as of Thursday, 47 homes were in "varying stages of design consultations/pre-construction activities."

This has led some applicants to the program — which, according to the most recent statistics, has started only three multi-family construction projects from among the more than 1,000 applicants — to say it is mismanaged, misleading and mired in miscommunication.

Build It Back has already cycled through two directors — Brad Gair, the original boss, stepped down in November and its current director Kathryn Mallon left on Tuesday, as DNAinfo New York first reported.

The federally-funded program was announced in June as the city's next step after Rapid Repairs, which used federal dollars to help restore utilities in damaged homes.

Build It Back was designed to provide cash for repairs and reimbursement funds for single-family and multi-family homeowners, resiliency projects for public housing and rental assistance for those impacted by the storm and the city has so far allocated $648 million in federal funds to the program.

Starting in July, when registration opened, through the Oct. 31, 2013 deadline, thousands registered for assistance.

Last October, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the first Build It Back project, which distributed $2.5 million for three buildings in the city — Knickerbocker Village in Manhattan and two buildings in Rockaway.

Those buildings are being fixed up through the multi-family assistance program, which helps residential buildings that have five or more families.

Build It Back officials pointed to an uptick in meetings with applicants in an email to DNAinfo, as well as a jump in awards selections — which increased 52 percent, from 110 to 171, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 20.

City officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference on Thursday, have said that the complicated, document-heavy process for receiving funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has slowed the release of funds.

But the state's New York Rising program, by comparison, has already cut checks to thousands of homeowners totaling more than $84 million. That program, while structured differently, is funded by the same federal dollars.

Several emails to the mayor's office, which is handling comment requests for the Build It Back program, were not returned.

Applicants have been divvied up into three priority levels, determined by household income and a damage assessment.

According to the city, 50 percent of applicants are Priority 1, which includes homeowners with significant damage and an income lower than the city's median.

Thirty percent are Priority 2 and 20 percent are Priority 3, according to the city.

So far, the city has said it can only guarantee funds for those listed as Priority 1, and says it will only be able to help some applicants in Priority 2 and Priority 3. The exact timing for the assistance is unknown.

Carmen Coward, 42, a special education teacher from Canarsie, said she's been placed in Priority 2 — without much help in sight for her basement, where her son lives and which was gutted by flood waters.

She depleted her savings to fix her roof, despite $10,000 in FEMA aid, and make minor repairs to her home, she said.

After applying to Build It Back, inspectors came to take a look at the house on Dec. 14, but Coward has not heard from them since.

"What's the solution for a homeowner?" she said. "What did they do with all this money that was given to them? Who is benefiting from this, really?"

Joseph Courtney, 39, tore down his family's one-story bungalow in Neponsit in Rockaway last May after the storm's surge knocked it off its foundation.

He drained his savings and borrowed money from family to start working on the rebuilding process, and applied to Build It Back with the hopes of receiving some reimbursement.

His experience with the program has been problematic. He said it was disorganized and the hired "specialists" rarely had any information.

"Just give me an answer," the married father of four said.

He dealt with lost paperwork, rescheduled meetings and, as of last week, was told his priority had changed from a 1 to a 2  — which he was later told was a glitch in the computer system. He's now returned to a Priority 1, but without much information.

"If I never get anything from Build It Back, no problem. But if they're doling out money, I think that my family should be in the conversation," he said.

For residents in multi-family homes, the process hasn't been much easier.

Matthew Villetto, 31, who lives in The Beach House, a 43-unit oceanfront condo in Rockaway Beach, said his experience with the program has been chaotic.

“It’s awful,” he said. “The program is underfunded, it's mismanaged.”

Villetto, a father of two and a senior project manager working at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, said the building had been placed as a Priority 2.

In an email sent by his case worker, he was told  “as of right now, I do not have a timeline on when we will begin funding priority 2 projects.”

His building experienced more than $1 million in damage after the boardwalk smashed into it during the storm.

“They have no timeline, no idea if or when we’ll receive any funding,” he said.

Councilman Eric Ulrich hopes to discuss Build It Back at a City Council hearing in March.

"Clearly it's broken, it's not working the way it was initially intended," he said.

"But we have to move forward now, we have to make this work. And if it's not working, we have to find a way to make it work."

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