Mayor DeBlasio needs to stop worrying about his image and start helping victims of Hurricane Sandy fix their homes, leaders said this week.
Southern Brooklyn residents whose homes were damaged during the storm of the century claim the mayor is more concerned with his moon-shot prediction that he’d complete all home reconstruction jobs in the city’s Build It Back program before year’s end and is now doing everything he can to clear the books to make that dream come true — including canceling jobs when victims fall behind on imposing deadlines the administration created for them in June. The city’s threats to drop people from the program are proof DeBlasio cares more about the appearance of making good on his pledge than looking out for the victims he’s supposed to be helping, a local councilman said.
“Build It Back is asking homeowners to bear the brunt of its own delayed timing,” said Councilman Mark Teryger (D–Coney Island). “These strict deadlines give the unpleasant impression that Build It Back may be prioritizing ‘moving aggressively toward Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s goal of program completion by the end of 2016’ over the well-being of New Yorkers who have been waiting for nearly four years for their homes to be rebuilt.”
For instance, the city-run, federally funded program now gives applicants six weeks to vacate their homes once the it picks a start date for reconstruction. But that is not enough time to find temporary housing — especially for vulnerable New Yorkers, such as the handicapped who need special accommodations and those on fixed incomes, according to Jennifer Pogue-Geile of Lutheran Social Services of New York, which works with Sandy victims.
One disabled Gerritsen Beacher facing expulsion from the program said Build It Back did not inform her of her Aug. 5 move-out date until just days before (it’s supposed to be one month’s notice, Pogue-Geilie said), leaving her a little more than two weeks to find a handicap-accessible apartment that can house herself, two family members, and a dog — all on an $1,850-a-month housing stipend the program provides and which she cannot supplement because she is retired and her limited income goes to paying her home’s mortgage, she said.
“It seems like everything is against me,” said 63-year-old Dolores Mitro, who needs a wheelchair to get around. “The prices of the apartments are high, and what do I do to pay the rent? I have to make sure I keep my house up first.”
The city’s sudden speed is a far cry from the program’s 2013 beginnings — it started out at a snail’s pace, but lately it has moved too fast, she said.
“We signed up right after the flood, but didn’t hear from them until a year and a half later,” Mitro said. “Then, in the last week in July, they said to me, ‘Aug. 5 is your move-out date.’ I still haven’t received an official letter.”
She also owes the program $8,200 in so-called “transfer amounts” — Federal Emergency Management Agency aid she received and must pay back before getting anything from the federally funded Build It Back.
In another rule instituted on June 1, applicants now have just 14 days after receiving new home designs to work out any kinks with the architect and repay transfer amounts.
Many applicants are aware how much they owe well before designs are complete, but setting a hard deadline for folks to cough up thousands of dollars is asking too much considering they’ve undergone years of financial hardship, Treyger said.
“Even for homeowners who are likely able to pay the remainder of their transfer amount, requiring them to do so within 14 days of receiving their designs is unrealistic for people who, in many cases have been paying both a mortgage on the home they cannot occupy and rent, for years,” he said.
But a program spokeswoman said Mitro is the exception, and most people have no trouble meeting the new deadlines.
“The mayor is prioritizing homeowners by setting the goal to complete the single-family program by the end of the year,” said program spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein. “Many of these deadlines have been communicated to homeowners for a period of time and many have already been extended multiple times. Over 90 percent of homeowners (almost 350 homeowners) presented designs since June 1 have complied with the deadline, with 80 percent signing their designs and grant agreements at their initial meetings.”
Former mayor Michael Bloomberg created Build It Back in 2013, and DeBlasio reformed it in 2014. In late 2015, he promised all work would be done by the end of 2016. More people are getting back into their homes now, but the accelerated time table also caused problems — a swarm of workers prevented a Gerritsen Beach woman from getting her special-needs son to school for days on end, and careless contractors working without proper oversight caused a home to collapse in the neighborhood in June.