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City Investigating Why Half of All 'Build it Back' Applicants Dropped Out

By Katie Honan | September 21, 2016 7:55am | Updated on September 21, 2016 8:04am
 A home elevated by the Build It Back program in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.
A home elevated by the Build It Back program in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

CONEY ISLAND — City officials are trying to figure out why more than half of the original applicants to its Build It Back program didn't stay with it — and many homeowners who did, still worry if construction will start before the mayor's self-imposed deadline.

The program, launched by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the months after Hurricane Sandy, closed near the one-year anniversary in October 2013 with more than 20,300 homeowners signed up.   

But as the program languished, 11,691 people withdrew their applications. Some dropped out on their own, while others were found to be ineligible or “unresponsive,” according to the city.

The city doesn't know why so many people left the program, and are currently working on a separate attrition study with the CUNY Center for Urban Research to find out why. The study will be completed by the end of 2016, according to spokesman Raul Contreras.

Meanwhile, many still registered with Build It Back are waiting for construction to begin before the end of the year, when Mayor Bill de Blasio said all single-family homes will be completed. 

Last April, Steve Lim moved out of the house he shares with his wife and two adult sons on Mermaid Avenue so it could be elevated out of the flood zone by Build it Back.

On their block, where 15 houses are attached, “everyone agreed to push up,” Lim said — and while they hadn’t elevated attached homes before, construction crews said it could be done.

The family put most of their items in storage, and they found an apartment for $2,500 a month. Both costs would be reimbursed through the city, they were told.

But a week later, program officials told them they shouldn’t have moved out. The reason for why things suddenly changed shifted every time they spoke to officials, the family said, adding that they have yet to get a straight answer.

“My house is the first home to move,” Lim said, adding that he's spent $10,000 out of his own pocket on the construction job while waiting for the city to send reimbursement checks.

“We’re hitting the six-month mark,” his son Jeffrey Lim, 30, told DNAinfo. “Construction hasn’t even started yet.”

READ MORE BUILD IT BACK COVERAGE

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► City Forced Us From Our Homes for Sandy Fixes Months Ago, Residents Say

Their frustrations are shared by many homeowners who, despite promises of change from de Blasio, say they still face mismanagement and miscommunication with the Build It Back program.

And as they move closer toward the administration’s self-imposed deadline, many fear they won’t get any help.

“Last year, we were fixing Build it Back — and now we’re finishing it, committing to completing the program and getting families home by the end of next year,” de Blasio said in 2015, on the third anniversary of the deadly storm.

But homeowners “are just sitting here waiting,” said Pamela Pettyjohn, who lives next door to the Lim family and has waited years for construction to begin.

“We expected a year, at least a year. We just don’t know what to do,” she said.

“This is not really a high-income neighborhood, so without this elevation, most of the people will lose their homes, they won’t be able to afford the flood insurance. Our flood and home insurance is going up.”

Sources within the program said the mayor’s goal has been impossible to meet from the start — and with three and a half months to go, is not likely to be met.

Many of the homes — like the rows of attached houses throughout hard-hit Coney Island — offer complications for construction crews. Some homes had termites and issues with rotting floors discovered only after a lift. And construction crews qualified to do such an unprecedented amount of work were limited.

“I think they knew from the start those homes were never going to be done [in time,]” an employee who asked to remain anonymous said.

“The mayor made the goal, it was his goal, we tried. At this point, when we’re ready to start construction, we’ve been a little more pushy to get [homeowners] out to get things going.”

Politicians have urged the mayor to extend the deadline, calling it "impossible." 

City officials said homeowners can get extensions on construction, but didn't provide information on how many people applied for them. Most homeowners who spoke to DNAinfo said they weren't even aware of the possibility to extend beyond the deadline. 

When asked if the city would make de Blasio's deadline, spokesman Raul Contreras defended the 2016 goal but also dodged the question — noting instead that any work is an improvement from the zero projects that had started in the two months it operated under the Bloomberg administration.

"The Mayor has set a goal to complete the single-family program by the end of the year. We have brought all relevant agencies to the table and are working aggressively towards that goal,” he said in a statement.

As of September 2016, they had "served 80 percent of homeowners, compared to 0 before Mayor de Blasio took office. In addition, over $120 million in reimbursement checks have reached homeowners compared to 0."

For Pettyjohn, having her home elevated through Build It Back could be the only way she stays in it.

"We were really badly damaged, and we just don't have any choice," she said. With new FEMA flood maps set to be finalized, her flood insurance will raise from around $2,000 a year to $10,000, she added.

"We wouldn't be able to pay our flood insurance, and we wouldn’t be able to afford our houses."