TOMPKINSVILLE — A year after promising the Build It Back program would be finished by the end of 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio returned to the borough Saturday to mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy — and said homeowners' expectations were in part to blame for the delays that will cause the program to miss his self-imposed deadline.
Two weeks after admitting the city wouldn't meet his goal, the optimistic tone on Build It Back he shared on last year's anniversary had changed. And the mayor said homeowner demands — like stalling construction until after upcoming holidays, which is a new initiative — blocked progress.
Unlike other city projects, Build It Back was not "one size fits all," and because of differing expectations the city couldn't keep momentum going, de Blasio said.
"I'm not saying homeowners didn't have a right to say, 'hey, I want to slow down for a reason, or didn't have a preference to design a home,'" he said Saturday after touring a new water tunnel on Staten Island. "I'm saying it contradicted the very notion of what we were trying to do, which is a big, fast operation on many many fronts — and I think that's where the contradiction is."
The Build It Back program, founded under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, came out of the Rapid Repairs program, which fixed boilers and electrical units to get people home quickly after Hurricane Sandy.
It was supposed to use billions in federal funds to repair, elevate, or reconstruct homes effected by the storm — but the model, which puts the city in charge of rebuilding thousands of homes, clearly doesn't work, de Blasio said.
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"I think in the future we want to think about much faster, more agile approaches to put more resources in the hands of the homeowners...because there was a natural contention between the individual reality of each homeowner and some of their preferences, versus the government's desire to move things very quickly," he said.
"I understand that different reality, but it caused constant stops and starts by the government, and also the government had its own share of problems."
The mayor thought Build It Back would be similar to his ambitious affordable housing project, until he sat in meetings about the program, learning about its complexities, he said.
"The whole thing was built on this very complicated structure," he said.
Since taking office in 2014, de Blasio made notable changes to the program, including removing income priority for applicants.
He hired construction veteran Amy Peterson to take over the program and pushed for legislation that would make the permitting process easier.
But homeowners in the program said the problems remained.
Paperwork was lost, information was changed at every visit, and things did not move as quickly as they wanted, homeowners said. Last spring, multiple applicants came forward to say that they were rushed out of their homes only to wait months for any construction work to begin.
Delays came from a lack of contractors, which de Blasio admitted was an issue.
But he maintained that, while there were some instances of construction delays, it was the individual demands of homeowners that blocked progress. And in the future, the city hoped to find a better way to respond to disasters, he said.
"I think people on our team responded to the order, but I think the mission was the kind of mission we need to change in the future," he said.