Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Laurie and Christopher Nunziato bought two small homes next to each other in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island in 2005. They lived in one house and rented out the other. The family hadn't planned on evacuating for Sandy until they saw water flowing into their neighborhood from the beach.
"We kinda panicked," said Laurie Nunziato, who was pregnant at the time. "I said, 'We need to get out of here' and basically told the kids to, 'Grab a coat, grab shoes and, let's go!'"
The family survived. Nunziato gave birth shortly after, but their houses did not do as well. Midland Beach was hard hit by Sandy and several homes in the neighborhood are still empty and in need of major repair. Some have been bulldozed.
At the Nunziatos house, mud-covered toys and a handwritten prayer in child’s writing were seen scattered near the driveway, during a visit earlier this month. Stuffed into the family’s mailbox was a FedEx envelope from Bank of America stamped “extremely urgent”.
Laurie says they could no longer afford their mortgage after the family lost the $1,100 a month their tenants had been paying in rent. On top of that, the family relocated to an apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where rent is $1,400 a month.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency covered two months of their new rent, but the Nunziatos do not expect to move back to their home for several more months. They need their insurance company to settle their claim before they can begin fixing the damage left by the storm. They have been approved for a federal low-interest loan but are concerned about taking on the added debt. Bank of America has allowed the family to postpone their mortgage payments for six months, but Laurie says that has not stopped the harassing phone calls and letters that threaten foreclosure and the sale of the property. Late last week one of their homes was padlocked.
"It's frustrating," Nunziato said. She also says the insurance company is holding up repair work on the houses.
Tyler Somes, a paralegal at Staten Island Legal Services, is representing the Nunziatos. He said other Sandy victims are also finding their doors padlocked.
"We have at least half a dozen cases of this," Somes said.Video by Jennifer Hsu
Bank of America did not respond to WNYC’s questions about the padlock, but in a statement the bank did say the notices were sent in error and apologized for any inconvenience.
But that does not fix the bigger issue that Laurie Nunziato is facing: at the end of her six-month forbearance, she will owe close to $15,000 all at once.
She said she is not asking for a free ride. "Just put those payments at the end of the loan," she said.
Legal advocates say that is what many families need: more time to receive insurance settlements, determine what government programs can help them, and, in general, recover from a storm that left many neighborhoods devastated. Somes believes the relief being offered by banks on federally backed loans right now is inadequate and will only postpone, and not prevent, foreclosures.
"They’re really failing to take into account the [extreme] circumstances of the disaster," he said.
The Nunziatos are also receiving threatening notices from Citi for a much smaller second mortgage. The bank recently refused to extend its forbearance. Somes says the family won't be able to afford the payment due at the end of the month. Citi wouldn't comment on the Nunziato's situation and said in general when a homeowner continues to be impacted by Sandy, loans are reviewed on a case by case basis.
While the Nunziatos fell behind on their mortgages after Sandy hit, many homeowners had fallen into default way before the storm. According to a WNYC analysis, more than 1,100 different properties in areas flooded by Sandy were in various stages of foreclosure as of early 2011. It takes, on average, 2 years to go through the foreclosure process in New York State.
In Dongan Hills, Staten Island, 36 properties are facing foreclosure. One of those homes belongs to Debra and Chris Severino, who have been fighting to receive a loan modification since 2009.
"Either modify me or not," Debra Severino said.
Photo: Debra and Chris Severino with their daughter Christina. The family is standing in what was once the kitchen of their basement apartment. (Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
On the night Sandy hit, the water filled the couple's backyard and burst through glass doors. Their basement apartment is now gutted and drying out. The Severinos are also waiting for an insurance company to pay their claim. And FEMA will not help until that happens. At a court’s request, the family has been putting money into an escrow account to show a good faith effort to pay down the mortgage, and Debra was thinking about dipping into it.
"Do I take the money that the courts told me to put aside for the bank and take it from there and start fixing this house?" she asked. "And then the banks say, 'Uh, no. We’re not modifying you get out.' Or do they say, 'Ok, we’re going to modify you where there’s money.' Like what do you do?"
The Severinos have grown attached to their home. They spent 15 years saving for it and built a pool in the backyard where their teenage daughter first learned to swim. They want to stay in their Staten Island neighborhood.
But others may not be feeling the same way. Christie Peale, the executive director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a nonprofit set up with help from the city to prevent foreclosures, is concerned that Sandy has tipped the scales toward homeowners walking away.
Peale says over the last few years most homeowners tried to keep their homes, but now people are dealing with houses that have lost value and which they cannot afford to repair.
"These sort of added levels of stressors could lead to abandonment," Peale said. "And it would be a real struggle for a lot of these communities to figure out how to maintain residents and maintain their neighborhood's character."
Peale is especially concerned about Canarsie in Brooklyn, where there is a significant overlap of flood damage and homeowners behind on their mortgages.
The federal government has imposed a moratorium on certain foreclosure activity on loans that meet specific criteria. But on May 1, those protections are scheduled to expire and banks will be free to move forward with foreclosure proceedings, sales and evictions. Many homeowners do not know whether they will even be back in their homes by then.