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'Build It Back' Helping Fewer Homeowners, but Needs $500M More, City Says

By Katie Honan | September 23, 2016 9:28am | Updated on September 23, 2016 10:21am
 City Councilman Mark Treyger at a City Council hearing on the Build It Back program on Sept. 22, 2016.
City Councilman Mark Treyger at a City Council hearing on the Build It Back program on Sept. 22, 2016.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

NEW YORK CITY — The city will add $500 million to its multi-billion dollar Build It Back budget despite losing more than half of its original registrants. 

Director Amy Peterson confirmed the ballooning costs at a City Council oversight hearing Thursday, hours after it was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

That brings the bill for the program to $2.7 billion — even though officials are now helping thousands fewer people than originally planned when the program closed registration in October 2013.

Since the first cost estimates, there have been numerous changes that require more money, Peterson explained.

“There have been an extensive amount of additional design construction requirements that are required to actually build these homes,” she said, from sprinklers to additional staircases to new building requirements in the city.

The construction work is complex— from soil conditions to high water tables to the homes’ locations in flood zones — and many of the houses had problems that existed long before Hurricane Sandy, like asbestos and lead paint, she said.

Although Build It Back officials have maintained that the cost to elevate homes in its single-family program was only a few hundred thousand dollars, in some cases that number is closer to $1 million. For most of the homes, that's more than the house is even worth. 

The increase was staggering to City Council representatives who spoke at the hearing, especially Councilman Mark Treyger, the chair of the resiliency committee. He called it an "outrage" and questioned whether everyone who wanted help would get it. 

“We were told by the mayor, told by the administration, repeatedly, that this amount would be sufficient to help all the applicants of the Build It Back program,” he asked, noting that the number was around 23,000 applicants at the time.

“It is very hard for us to comprehend how, you’re now saying that we need $500 million more city money, and we’ve actually helped less than half of that 23,000 figure.”

When asked about the mayor’s deadline to finish all homes by the end of the year, Peterson did not commit to extending it. She did, though, say that some homes could be given an extension on an individual basis. 

They are also offering better buyout deals for homeowners who didn't originally sign up for the state and the city's separate acquisition programs.

Applicants can get up to $150,000 in additional dollars to move, Peterson said. 

Throughout the three-hour hearing, Peterson was unable to answer specific questions on the number of people still in Build It Back, or how much money has been spent so far. When asked later for specifics, a spokesman for City Hall, Raul Contreras, directed all inquiries to the city's Sandy Tracker website — which was down Thursday and Friday. 

“With all due respect, this is a hearing about deadlines, a hearing about cost overruns, and you don’t have this information of how many people are left in the program?” Treyger asked during the hearing.

When asked about the program specifics at an unrelated press conference, de Blasio said he'd have more details around the fourth anniversary of the storm on Oct. 29. 

"I can also tell you, right now, we remain positive because we have sped up the pace of construction intently over the last few months — got a lot more partners involved," he said, adding the city will have to spend its own money on many resiliency projects. 

City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who suggested Peterson step down or be fired earlier this summer, was silent during the hearing — but blasted it on Twitter, calling the hearing a "dog and pony show."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the total amount of Build It Back's budget. It is $2.7 billion.