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City Build it Back Kicks Dozens of Homeowners Off List to Elevate Homes

By Katie Honan | May 11, 2017 11:49am
 Homeowners who thought they would have their homes elevated were told they were no longer eligible for a lift.
Homeowners who thought they would have their homes elevated were told they were no longer eligible for a lift.
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New York City Build It Back

ROCKAWAY BEACH — Dozens of applicants who were approved to have their homes raised through the city’s Hurricane Sandy rebuilding program — many who have already moved out ahead of construction — were recently told they were no longer eligible for the lift, officials said.

It's the latest drama n the Build It Back's nearly four year history, which has included miscommunication, lost paperwork and city and federal red tape. 

New guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency caused the city to review applicants more closely — something a source within the program admits they didn't do throughout construction approvals.

They found approximately 50 homeowners in Brooklyn and Queens originally approved for an elevation were no longer qualified, according to a spokesman for Build It Back. 

But the homeowners were each given different explanations for why they were deemed ineligible — and even officials and sources within Build it Back gave DNAinfo conflicting reasons for the change. 

One of the homeowners, Jeffrey Lopez, 39, said he was preparing to raise his home in Rockaway Beach in April when Build it Back officials called him and told him his home — which had six feet of water from the basement through to his first floor — wasn't damaged enough to justify an elevation.

Then, officials contacted him again and told him it that the reason his home wasn't eligible was because it was already above the lowest elevation at which projected flooding occurs.

"I was given two reasons and I think they opted for the one that would have the least amount of repercussions for them," said Lopez, who is now appealing the decision.

Catherine Mulholland, 50, whose Breezy Point home had more than three feet of water on the first floor during Hurricane Sandy, was told in a letter dated April 17 that her home could not be elevated because the property “will not be Substantially Improved by the program.”

Three homeowners in Edgemere who live in a row of attached homes with a shared foundation were approved for Build it Back years ago, and even got a visit from a city rep who convinced the third owner to participate so that all three homes could all be elevated at once, they said.

But in March, they said, they got a phone call from Build it Back reps who said the homes were never eligible in the first place — specifically as a result of their status as a multi-family property on a shared foundation.

“You made us move out of our homes to tell us the paperwork that’s submitted is incorrect?” said one of the homeowners who declined to give her name because she's still trying to work with the program.

Build it Back officials told DNAinfo that nine of the homeowners deemed ineligible through new FEMA guidelines had already moved out into temporary houses when they were told the option was no longer available to them.

"After completing surveys of these homes during the design process, it was clear they are already at the right elevation and therefore do not need to be raised higher," City Hall spokeswoman Melissa Grace said in a statement.  "All remaining work, including elevating utilities, will continue, and homeowners will be reimbursed for any work they did on their own.”

City officials insisted they aren't dropping anyone from the program, adding that homeowners will be offered other floodproofing options, such as installing absorbent gravel or flood vents to mitigate water during the next major storm.

But sources told DNAinfo that the real reason for the reversal is due to the federal government taking a closer look at the city's Build It Backwhich requested an additional $500 million for the program last fall despite helping fewer people, sources said.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, who is administering the funds for the program, told city officials they wanted to make sure they weren’t paying to elevate homes that were already above the base flood elevation — because they could be flood proofed in a less expensive way — sources said.

The base flood elevation measures how high water is expected to rise in the case of another catastrophe.

HUD also wanted a closer inspection of damage to homes, prompting the city to begin re-evaluating sites where Build it Back had already approved work, sources told DNAinfo.

The city denied the decision to remove homeowners from the list of those eligible for elevation had anything to do with a federal audit.

City officials said of the more than 8,200 homeowners in the program, 94 percent have been helped in some way, either through construction or reimbursement for construction and 71 percent of construction projects have been finished.