ROCKAWAY PARK — The city will move millions of dollars in federal funds to housing recovery, bring in more staff and reprioritize applicants in an effort to improve its floundering Build It Back program, the mayor announced Saturday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made long-awaited appointments to his recovery team at Seaside Library in Rockaway Park, promising to make city's faltering Build It Back program easier for homeowners.
"For many New Yorkers, it's been the worst 17 months of their lives," he said, noting the uncertainty felt by Hurricane Sandy victims who have suffered under the "man-made disaster" of bureaucracy.
The mayor announced a new senior advisor for recovery, resiliency and infrastructure, tapping Bill Goldstein, the former vice president of the MTA Capital Construction Project, for the role.
He also announced a new Office of Recovery and Resiliency and named Dan Zarrilli, who is currently in charge of the city's resiliency efforts, as its director.
Amy Peterson, who runs the advocacy group Nontraditional Employment for Women, was officially appointed as the director of the Housing Recovery Office, which DNAinfo.com New York first reported on Wednesday.
She'll work on streamlining the process of approving rebuilding projects as well as releasing reimbursement checks to those who paid for necessary repairs from their own pocket, de Blasio said.
The news was the mayor's first announcement regarding the city's rebuilding initatives since his election, and he was joined by local elected officials as well as Sen. Charles Schumer at the Seaside Library, which just reopened in October after being severely damaged by the 2012 hurricane.
As of the end of that month, not one single-family home had been rebuilt, and no checks had been sent out. The mayor lagged in making appointments, and didn't name a replacement after the head of the Build It Back program, Kathryn Mallon, stepped down.
But he vowed to make changes to the program, and some progress was already being made.
A city official said repair work started last week on a home in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, and the project is also working on a complete rebuild of a home in Breezy Point.
Reimbursement checks are also on their way to homeowners, an official said, although it's not clear how many checks went out or how much money is being sent out.
The mayor said his office will release another report on Sandy recovery efforts in two weeks — but for now he assured homeowners that they'd see immediate changes to the program.
In addition to the new appointments, de Blasio said the Housing Recovery Office will see a 35 percent increase in staff, moving trained workers from other agencies to have 105 people dedicated to Sandy work.
And $100 million in federal dollars from HUD originally earmarked for other projects, like business rebuilding iniatives, has been moved to housing, according to the city's ammendement to its Community Development Block Grant application.
Any home which was severely damaged will be prioritized for a rebuild or construction work, regardless of the homeowner's income, the mayor announced.
The city had previously said it could only guarantee funds for Priority 1 homeowners — about 50 percent of applicants, which is determined by household income and damages — but on Saturday de Blasio said money would be available soon for other priority levels.
The Office of Recovery and Resiliency will also have staff dedicated to dealing with federal programs like FEMA and HUD, which will help speed up the process of releasing federal funds, he said.
Homeowners who have been critical of the program said they were happy to hear about the changes — but took a "wait and see" approach.
Local civic leader Noreen Ellis, of the Rockaway Park Civic Association, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the mayor's announcements.
"He said his plan," she said. "Now we just have to hold him to it."