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Relief disaster: ‘Show us the money!’ say storm victims at Build It Back hearing

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Build it back already!

The city’s “Build it Back” superstorm Sandy recovery program has many Brooklynites living in shells of the cherished homes they’ve had for 30 years or more, residents complained at a Council hearing on the program on Monday.

“These people have nowhere to go” said David Wynn, president of the Seagate Association, whose homeowners on the western end of Coney Island were particularly hard hit. “They’re living in hovels.”

Nearly all of the storm victims who testified complained about the program’s snail-like pace — just three households in the city shared $100,000 in stipends for single-family home repairs since June of 2013 — and residents focused their ire on newly minted Office of Housing and Recovery Operations director Amy Peterson, who admitted that the program has been seriously flawed.

Build It Back launched without a customer service team, she said, and it didn’t even have enough staff to properly serve customers until late October, 2013.

Since then, its workforce has grown to 70 employees and 200 contracted workers, and Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced on March 29 that he will assign an additional 35 workers to the program.

But that’s come too late for residents who say they’ve squandered precious dollars on repairs that weren’t compliant with the new program.

“All the money I got from the insurance company is wasted,” said Rocco Brescia, who learned he had to elevate his home in Coney Island after he sunk thousands of dollars into first-floor repairs.

Peterson, who promised that checks for residents totaling $800,000 were already disbursed or in the mail, said that there was a method to all the bureaucratic madness.

The program was designed to not repeat the sins of past disaster relief programs, which were rife with contractor fraud and shoddy construction.

“The intent was for clients of the program to feel assured that construction would be done correctly, to the resilient building standards, and that they would bear no risk that funds would be reclaimed or extorted,” she said.

To that end, she said, the process includes multiple steps, including having those affected meet with multiple contractors and specialists. But handing applicants off through different technocrats breaks down accountability, she said.

Homeowners said this aspect was particularly frustrating, because it was clear that important information was being lost in the shuffle.

Slow relief

The federally funded program is finally starting to pay out, but the going is slow, and the money available can’t help everyone.

More than 600 of Build It Back’s 20,000 applicants citywide have accepted deals and are in the early stages of planning their repairs or rebuilds.

Program beneficiaries have accepted about $40 million — though the city has not yet issued most of the checks and the city has offered an additional $312 million for rebuilding plans that homeowners have not yet committed to, Peterson said.

More people are getting to the final stages of the process, she said. By January, there had been just 500 review meetings. Since then there have been more than 2,500. The ramp-up is part of a push from the DeBlasio administration to re-prioritize how funding is allocated, a city spokeswoman said.

DeBlasio announced over the weekend an additional $100 million in funding for the program that will ensure all homeowners who have chosen to rebuild will get money, regardless of income level or priority status.

Currently, the city faces a $1 billion shortfall to aid repairs for priority 2 and 3 homeowners, who make up a little less than half of applicants, Peterson said.

The federal government has made two allocations to the program so far — totalling $1,695,000. Now the city is pushing for a third allocation that would fully fund repair work, a city spokeswoman said. The city has two years from the time it draws down federal funds to disburse the money, a city spokeswoman said.

Peterson acknowledged that the mayor’s office has the power to re-open enrollment — something Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) has called for — but she said council members need to make that case to the city.

Until then, Sandy victims say they need to get what’s coming to them and get on with their lives.

“Show us the money,” said Joseph Palmer-Doyle of Queens.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 5:31 pm, July 9, 2018: Context added.
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